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The Holocaust and Soviet War Crimes in Hungary, Jan-Feb 1945; The Twin Terrors of the Arrow-Cross & the Red Army.   Leave a comment

Trapped between the Black Eagle & the Red Star:

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At the beginning of 1945, even with the Pest side of the capital under siege, Szalási’s idiotic Arrow-Cross terror turned its attention to those who were helping the Jews of Budapest to survive until the Red Army could complete the ‘liberation’ of the whole city. Yet, even as they did so, the Red Army was also unleashing its own form of ‘revenge’ and terror on Hungarian citizens on the eastern suburbs and peripheral villages. Though the siege had begun at the end of 1944, the German army was ordered to hold the city to defend the Vienna Basin and the only oil field still at its disposal, the one in Zala County. But the war in the country did not end even after the siege of the Hungarian capital and its capitulation. Meanwhile, efforts were being made to have regular Hungarian troops take part in the final crushing of the Nazi Third Reich. A group of soldiers who wound up as prisoners of the Soviet armies initiated the establishment of a Hungarian legion, but they were not allowed to implement their plan.

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The Provisional Government formed in Debrecen recruited a new democratic Hungarian army recruited in the ‘liberated’ part of the country, but it did not become battle-ready in time. Only the military cooperation of a single spontaneously rallied outfit, the Buda Voluntary Regiment, could be observed in the battle for Budapest. When the German Army’s attempt to break through the Allied lines in the Ardennes failed by early January, the few still combat-worthy élite guards, with the Sixth SS Panzer Army, were hastily transferred to Transdanubia, where, deployed around Lake Balaton, they were able to hold on to the Zala oil fields.

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Above: Soviet soldiers in battle in Budapest on 14 January 1945. This photograph was taken four days before the liberation of Pest was completed. The complete defeat of German forces in the capital, including the equal numbers of Hungarian soldiers still supporting them, took until 13 February.

New Year in Pest – A Frightful Fortnight:

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On New Year’s Eve, units of the Red Army overran Hungarian army positions around Pest. House-to-house fighting extended into the working quarters of the city, and Soviet soldiers penetrated the culverts of the inner district.  Often the two sides were separated by only one street or house. Aircraft squadrons continued to drop bombs, and fighter planes strafed streets that were deemed to be in enemy hands, though sometimes they were shooting at their own men. In the city centre, as the siege progressed slowly in their direction, the co-workers of Raoul Wallenberg, the Langfelder-Simon family, which had been placed under Swedish protection, moved from Üllői út to Révai utca, near to the Opera House.

Almost eighty people had moved into the apartment building which was rented by the Swedish Embassy. In the afternoon of 1 January, Arrow-Cross armed men shot the lock off the outside door. They smashed the door to the cellar, where the Swedish Embassy employees were living. To the accompaniment of shouting, swearing and threats, they pillaged all the families’ money and food. Meanwhile, someone managed to inform Wallenberg by telephone, and he sent a detective to intervene, thus avoiding more serious harassment or massacre on the spot. Wallenberg and Langfelder arrived later with an armed gendarme to guard the house. At that time, Wallenberg was forced to spend most of his time in hiding, and was constantly preoccupied with survival, his plans for Hungary and making the earliest possible contact with the Soviet forces. A few days later, a further five gendarmes were added and had served there for scarcely a fortnight when a further order sent them into the firing-line. No more was heard of them. With Wallenberg’s permission, Langfelder brought his two-year-old niece, Éva Simon there. Until then the child had found shelter and a home with a friendly Christian family in central Pest, an action which was strictly forbidden by decree. The house had been bombed, and so she had to be moved and from then on had remained with her parents.

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On 5 January, following direct orders from the Szalási government, police and Arrow-Cross irregulars began emptying out the remaining ‘international houses’, those under the protection of the various neutral countries’ governments, most notably the Swedish and the Swiss. When the news reached Raoul Wallenberg, he offered a bribe of food and medications for them to leave his charges where they were.

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On the night of 7 January, armed raids took place on the occupants of Jókai utca 1 in Terézváros where the Swedish Embassy had rented the second floor the previous autumn. Ten groups of activists operated in the rooms under the direction of Dr Béla Forgács and Dr Antal Léderer, caring for the Swedish protégés. The ever-more savage Arrow-Cross could not tolerate the Swedish presence any longer and meant to mop it up, paying no attention to the protected status of the various rented properties. In the raid, the first part of the nightmare was total plundering. Then, some two hundred people were turned out into the street, some of them being marched away, the women and children escorted to the ghetto, where ninety of them were crammed into the flats within a house in Akácfa utca.

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Some of the men were tortured and shot on the way in the streets and squares or on the Danube embankment. Wallenberg searched for the kidnapped people but without success. Imre Nidosi, commander of the Arrow-Cross guard on the Pest side simply denied all knowledge of Swedish-protected persons being in his custody.

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The Arrow-Cross marauders’ atrocities also struck at the Swedish embassy offices in Üllői út. On the evening of the 8th, they intimidated and robbed a hundred and fifty persons – for the most part, embassy employees – and then marched them off to the Mária Terézia barracks. Hans Weyermann, the active agent of the International Red Cross on the Pest side, made an interesting special report of that day. According to this, an agent of the Soviet State Security Police had dropped by parachute and appeared at his office. Asking to see Weyermann in private, he told him that he was expected to speak to the commander of the German defenders about avoiding needless bloodshed. The Germans were to spare hostages, political prisoners and occupants of the ghettoes, and in return, the Red Army would not trouble the civilian population and any calling to account would be done exclusively through the law and the courts. According to Lévai’s Wallenberg, Langfelder’s sister and brother-in-law, Dr Gyula Simon, last spoke to him on 10 January. He dashed in to see them for a few minutes in the Swedish Embassy building at Révai utca 16. His brother-in-law had been second-in-command of the building on 1 January at the time of the Arrow-Cross attack. Lévai tells us that on the evening of 10 January Károly Szabó reported that…

… the front was on Thököly út by the the Millenáris Sports Ground. There he had had a word with a captain, a friend of his, who was quite prepared to let him and his wife through, so he would gladly take Wallenberg and … Langfelder, as that was what Wallenberg wanted. Szabó said that that he too would go through with them and come back next day.

On the same night, Wallenberg took further steps and made preparations to travel. With the help of György Szöllősi and Langfelder, he secretly made the touring car ready for a long journey in the garage, hiding a large sum in gold and jewels in a petrol can. According to Szöllősi, their idea was first to go to Debrecen, and from there to Sweden, for Wallenberg to make his report. These details are confirmed in the memoirs of the gendarme, Lajos Bajusz, who also recalled that both men were very nervous before the journey. Sándor Erdey, a war reporter, later recalled that he had been asked by the restauranter of the ‘Paprika csárda’ (where he was a regular customer) to help a Jewish family to get to Pannónia utca. Erdey promised to do so, but immediately declined the “generous return favour” that was offered. Next morning, during an air-raid, he managed to transport the family, with the help of his brother. He went back to the restaurant for lunch, where he was spoken to by a ‘stranger’ according to his memoirs, which continued:

The well-dressed young man introduced himself, and it was Raoul Wallenberg, embassy counsellor. He too wanted to reward me, and was offended when I declined. As he put it, that would mean that he couldn’t ask me to do something else. With great difficulty he made his request known, and it was the same as the day before. I gave my consent, but asked that we should start within hours. Again, I asked for my brother’s help. I took the man entrusted to me and his fiancée from the address given to the Pannonia Hotel …

It’s not clear how Erdey recognised the ‘stranger’ as Wallenberg, especially as he does not record the language of the conversation. Since both men spoke good German, they would have had little difficulty in communicating. Neither is there any mention of Langfelder, Wallenberg’s ever-present driver. But the incident shows that the rescue of several people by car from Jókai utca by car was successful, and the Pannonia Hotel was indeed where several Jewish families found shelter, along with many other persecuted people. The manager, Sándor Kaufmann, succeeded, by much ingenuity and even more risk (later honoured at Yad Vashem), in protecting to the end those hiding from the persistent ‘Jew-hunt’ of the Arrow-Cross. On 11 January, Wallenberg and Langfelder said goodbye to their closest colleagues at the Hazai Bank. The secretary could now see that he no longer had the ways and means to continue his work. That night, they slept once more at László Ocskay’s roomy flat in Benczúr utca, which was in a building under Red Cross protection. Next day they set off by car, but turned back, presumably due to the Soviet advance. On the 13th, the front line reached the mid-point of Andrássy út and the parallel Benczúr utca. It was at this point, in both space and time, that Wallenberg tried to make contact with Marshal Malinovski. He reported personally to the Russians in Benczúr utca, using a note which apparently read, in Russian, ‘I come over’. He was then taken behind the Russian lines with a major and military escort, accompanied by Langfelder.

At about this time in Berlin, Wallenberg was under consideration in Berlin by the ‘Jewish expert’, a leading figure in the campaign for the destruction of the Jews of Europe. He had followed attentively the activity of Eichmann and knew a great deal about the diplomatic rescue attempts in Budapest. In a telegraphic summary, he informed Eichmann, then in Berlin, that ambassador Danielsson had gone into hiding and that Wallenberg had been placed under German protection. Although the precise details are still unclear, it seems that the Soviets intercepted this message, leading to Wallenberg’s arrest as a ‘suspected spy’ and his imprisonment by the Soviets.  By this time, Eichmann had become an embarrassment and encumbrance to the upper echelons of the SS. The next day, the 14th, the main military hospital in Budapest received a direct hit. Dying soldiers were left in destroyed buildings and the wounded piled up in makeshift hospitals, without medicine or nurses, lying in the cold cellars of the burned-out Parliament building and the Museum of Military History. A retreating German army unit blew up the Petöfi Bridge, then known as the Horthy Bridge. An Arrow-Cross group advanced into the ghetto and murdered several people they encountered before bein routed by Miksa Domonkos, a Jewish Council member with good contacts in the gendarmerie, together with a couple of policemen. In the streets, the advancing Soviet soldiers used captured civilians to shield them from enemy fire. In short order, the German military also adopted this tactic, but the strategy was ineffectual for both armies.

The Collapse of the Reich & Liberation of Auschwitz:

The collapse of the Reich was accelerating and every initiative of the German military leadership was a failure. The inner circle of the Nazi chiefs of staff clung on in blind faith that Hitler’s wonder-weapons would yet save them and their families from ignominious invasion and defeat. They wove fantasies, as the Hungarian political élite had done the previous year,  about making a separate peace, based on the mistaken belief that in no way would the West allow Stalin to penetrate deep into central Europe. Several saw the series of nightmare acts as the consequence of the fanatical genocidal activity of Eichmann. He was aware, as were the other Nazi leaders, that he occupied a prominent place on the Allies’ list of war criminals. The other SS leaders kept their distance from Eichmann as catastrophe loomed. They sat apart from him in the dining room of Hitler’s underground bunker in Berlin and did not invite the Obersturmbannführer to join them. The mass murderer pondered: Am I supposed to be the blackest sheep in the flock?

The deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz had begun in March 1944, almost as soon as the SS arrived in Budapest (I have written elsewhere on this site about these) Eichmann led the special task force that gathered them in concentration camps and then loaded them in cattle trucks, deporting 437,000 of them there in just eight weeks. He later boasted to a crony that he would jump laughing into his grave for his part in the deaths of four million Jews. In a 1961 diary entry after his conviction in Israel of genocide, Eichmann wrote:

I saw the eeriness of the death machinery; wheel turning on wheel, like the mechanisms of a watch. And I saw those who maintained the machinery, who kept it going. I saw them, as they re-wound the mechanism; and I watched the second hand, as it rushed through the seconds; rushing like lives towards death. The greatest and most monumental dance of death of all time; this I saw.

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The numbers of SS camp guards, Lagerschützen, at Auschwitz varied: very roughly in 1944 there were only 3,500 guarding the 110,000 inmates. There were also usually around eight hundred Sonderkommando prisoners at any one time. Out of the estimated seven thousand men and two hundred women guards who ‘served’ at Auschwitz during the war, only eight hundred were ever prosecuted. The rest merely disappeared into private life, and very many must have been able to escape with valuables stolen from the inmates. As the Russians advanced in the winter of 1944-45, Auschwitz was evacuated westwards in a terrible ‘death march’ of more than fifty miles in sub-zero temperatures. Those who could not keep up were shot and in all, around fifteen thousand died. Nor was the horror over even when the camps were liberated. Despicably, Polish villagers even killed some Jews after the end of the war in Europe when they returned to claim their property, as happened at the village of Jedwabne. We have no evidence of this happening in Hungary, but we know that very few of the Auschwitz survivors returned, and even fewer did so to resettle. This was certainly the case in the village of Apostag, where out of some six hundred Jews deported, fewer than six returned before emigrating (I have written about this elsewhere on this site).

Rationality might have dictated that, once the war looked as if it might be lost, the rail, military and human resources put into the Holocaust ought to have been immediately redirected to the military effort instead, and the Jews who could have been forced into contributing to the war effort ought to have been put to work rather than exterminated. This, after all, had been what had happened before March 1944 in Hungary. Yet a quite separate, entirely Nazi rationale argued that the worsening situation on the Eastern Front required if anything an intensification of the Holocaust, rather than a winding down. As Saul Friedlander has written:

Whipping up anti-Jewish frenzy was, in Hitler’s imagination, one of the best ways to hasten the falling apart of the enemy alliance … the Jews were the hidden link that kept Capitalism and Bolshevism together.

Furthermore, he asserted, if ‘Fortress Europe’ was about to be invaded, the domestic danger posed by the Jews in his diseased imagination needed to be eradicated as soon as possible. Finally, with the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January, his Final Solution to the Jewish ‘problem’ was brought to an end.

The Final Fight for Survival:

Yet, in Budapest at least, many of the Jews had survived, thanks largely to the letters of protection provided them by the Swedish and Swiss diplomats and their brave Hungarian colleagues and volunteers. The last few weeks of the siege were some of the most difficult to survive, however. None of the ‘safe’ houses protected by the Swedish and Swiss Red Cross was truly safe from the Arrow-Cross any more. The thundering sound of cannons was heard all the time and huge bombers flew low in the sky.

Nearly all of the people of Pest were starving, but especially the Jews, who were either in the ghettoes or in hiding, trying to get food without ration cards and only able to buy it after 5 p.m. By this time, Daisy Birnbaum (see her ‘letter of protection’ below) was back with her parents, unafraid even of the bombs, although they were walled in her uncle’s cellar. There were five of them, and their daily ration was a small slice of bread with margarine, so they were hungry all the time. They lived in what Daisy describes as a ‘nook’ behind a makeshift toilet wall for close to seven weeks with the help of neighbours and friends of her father. No other Jews remained in the house because they had all been taken to the ghetto. However, the few gentile families that remained soon moved down permanently to the cellar, due to the constant bombing of the nearby ‘Nyugati’ (Western) Railway Station.

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Eventually, the Russian soldiers found them when they were searching for German soldiers by pressing stethoscopes to the walls. Hearing the hollow sound, they did not wait for a response but kicked the ‘communal’ toilet apart. They greeted them with machine guns at the ready as they crawled out from behind the destroyed wall, giving them part of their square-shaped black bread and bacon to eat. To begin with, the Russian soldiers behaved like liberators and were greeted as such, especially by the Jewish survivors, but that soon changed. Nevertheless, when the siege was finally ended in February 1945, it must have felt that, as it does so often in that part of central Europe, spring had come early, in both a physical and spiritual sense. Daisy Birnbaum recalled mixed feelings as most, though not all of her family were reunited:

During the spring of 1945, like the rest of the survivors, we tried to live as if those terrible months could have been erased from our memories. And we had not yet given up the hope that the deportees would return. The renewal of the Sunday lunches of the past also belonged to this noble effort. For about three years, Aunt Juliska appeared at our Sunday table. The poor thing wept every Sunday; from the soup until the end of the meal, her tears were flowing copiously. And she kept repeating to my mother: “You see, my dear, every stinking kike is back, only my darling Lajoska was killed”. Later she moved to her sister who lived in the countryside. 

Three other brief stories of survival remain to be retold here from Daisy’s little book about 1944, which many of her friends and their relatives sadly did not survive. The first is of her first ‘boyfriend’, György. His mother was one of those deported to Bergen-Belsen towards the end of the war who did not return and after the later liberation of that camp, Gyuri went to live with his aunt Ilus while his older brother, Pista, who had spent 1944 in Eger with false documents, moved in with another ‘survivor’ sister and her family. By the time Gyuri turned ten, his father, inforced labour in the army, was reported ‘missing’ before the German occupation. From then on, they lived in wretched misery with many others in a ‘Jewish house’, waiting to be deported. Probably with the help of their ‘Uncle Béla’, the family received the Swedish protective papers, Schutzpasse, and with about twenty strangers they were moved into the abandoned apartment of Aunt Ilus. There Gyuri survived the siege and the continuous Arrow-Cross raids. Almost daily, the thugs looked for any reason to take people out from the houses and shoot them into the Danube. In 1945, already free, but fully orphaned, Gyuri found himself in the same apartment in Pozsonyi út which he shared with Aunt Ilus and Ági, waiting for the return of Uncle Béla who was ‘spending time’ in the Soviet Union.

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Above: Pista and Gyuri c. 1937.

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Dr László, the father of Mihály or Misi (pictured above at Balassagyarmat in 1938), held the rank of lieutenant and worked as a physician in the First World War and also served in the Second. His maternal grandparents lived in Balassagyarmat, the family’s home since the eighteenth century. His grandfather was a member of the ‘Jewish gentry’, a well-to-do, respected landowner. Although he lived in Budapest with his family for most of the year, “Gyarmat” was his paradise where he, his mother and his sisters spent their summers. When his grandfather died in 1943, aged 62, the family ‘council’ decided that Misi’s mother should move back ‘home’ to manage the estate, as both uncles were in serving in forced labour camps. So Misi and his sister also stayed in Gyarmat and went to the Jewish school there. With the German occupation, the estate was confiscated and the family was required to return to Budapest. Those of the family who remained in Gyarmat, their friends and the rest of the Jews were crammed into cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz. Misi lost his maternal grandmother there, together with all his schoolmates from Gyarmat.

Hoping to avoid a similar fate, during the summer of 1944, Misi and his family converted to Catholicism. Whereas none of the churches had openly stood up for the persecuted, both children were saved by members of Catholic orders. Misi found refuge with the Collegium Josephinum whose Prioress was later awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for the nunnery’s role in saving sixty Jewish children and twenty adults from the Gestapo in 1944. Misi’s sister was saved by the Carmelite nuns of Kőbánya. Béla and Pali, his paternal uncles both wound up as forced labour soldiers on the Russian front, the former ‘disappearing’ and the latter surviving the siege of Stalingrad. Pali’s wife was deported to Auschwitz but, miraculously, both of them survived, as did Misi’s paternal grandmother who had remained in their Budapest apartment. She did not wear a yellow star and neither did she move into the ghetto, but somehow got through the war alive. It took thirty-five years for Misi to gather enough strength to visit Balassagyarmat, a similar story to many others who were forced to leave their beloved Hungarian villages. Many others never went back, and those still alive probably never will.

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The final ‘survivor’s story’ recorded by Daisy Birnbaum is that of Ágnes, who was born in Endrőd, a small town in eastern Hungary, although her happiest summer memories were of her grandmother’s home at Zalaegerszeg in western Hungary. Ági’s much-adored father left their flat in Budapest for the forced labour camp ‘one evening in November’ and she never saw him again. She wrote the following piece of prose (an extract from which is given here) recalling the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, including her return to Endrőd:

New Year’s Eve, someone tells fortunes from the residue of some black liquid. Everybody prognosticates. The key turns to the right in the prayer-book: We will survive. Wedding band in the bottom of a glass of water. What do you see? A cross. Your father will not return. Tell us, dear spirit, when will the ghetto be liberated? Slowly, the name of a month appears on the paper: January.

In January, a Russian soldier enters the building and points toward the exit. Marching columns. We break into a yarn depot and on the way back we exchange thread for bread. I drop the ten rolls of machine twist I am supposed to carry. The snow is knee-high on the road; the soles of my shoes are of cardboard. I walk the distance of Monor to Szolnok, practically unconscious. From Szolnok on, there is a train, a beautiful, uncovered cattle-car, one can sit down in, and we reach the village in a day.

Returning to Endrőd was anything but simple for Ági. She couldn’t walk as her toes were frost-bitten. She was given two wooden planks by a local peasant. Fastening them to her feet, she practised walking. Her mother is suffering from scurvy due to vitamin deficiency; She worked on a hand-driven carding-machine, torturing her body to provide milk, bread and soap for them. There was no husband or father left in their lives. A small kitchen was to be their home; there they lived, unaware even of what was happening in the village. There were no newspapers, no radio. She wrote that: It might be three months before we learn what had happened beyond the borders of the country.

Their apartment in Budapest had been ransacked, therefore they tried to resume life at Endrőd, but after a while it became unbearable. They first moved to Szeged, and finally returned to Budapest. Of her relatives in the countryside, Ágnes’ uncle died of starvation at Kőszeg and her paternal grandparents were deported together with her father’s sister. They were put to work on a farm in Austria, where Ági’s grandfather drove a tractor. They survived, despite the ‘disappearance’ of their son, Ági’s father. Being Jewish was never a simple issue in her life because she would always remember the gigantic capital Zs in her father’s military record book, and that she had to grow up fatherless. However, she always felt that she was Hungarian, even if she had only by chance. She never left Hungary, because she chose to be a Hungarian … Like nearly all Budapest children of that time, and especially those of the Jewish elementary school on Hollán utca, Ágnes was just a generation away from country life, having relatives in the countryside. The deportations of 1944 fractured that connection forever for Hungary’s Jews. Outside the capital, all Jews were deported, and Jewish children survived the Holocaust just by chance, whereas after the war, Budapest was full of Jewish orphans and half-orphans, because from there the adults were taken to various forced labour camps and sent on death marches.

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From February 1945, the children remained largely silent about the recent past, and only by coincidence did they learn that a classmate lived with her aunt or just with her mother. Daisy has written that they didn’t want to remember, just as the adult survivors hesitated to face the memories of the previous terrible years:

We who survived have survived, but there are events in life that one cannot really survive. We try not to think of them all the time, but they are there and rule our lives, and our basic reactions to most things. …

I am writing of middle-class families who were not particularly broad-minded, polished people, but who worked hard, reared their children and were happy when their small savings increased. Many remained in towns and villages in the countryside where they had always lived; from there they were carried off to various extermination camps. These were simple people: even their dreams were grey. But they died incredible deaths, prepared for them by diseased minds. Millions shared their fate but each suffered death individually, death that  would have been unimaginable if they ever contemplated the end of their lives: Killed by gas, shot in the head, death by starvation.

Alluding to Fateless, the English translation (2004) of the novel Sortalanság (1975) by Imre Kertész, Daisy comments that their perishing completed their ‘Fatelessness’ because they were robbed of their adulthood or old age, and of death with dignity. Some of her friends never even turned eleven, a fact that she has never been able to assimilate and a crime she cannot forgive.

The ‘Disappeared’ – The Mysterious Fate of Wallenberg & Langfelder:

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On 14 January in Budapest, Wallenberg appeared in a Russian car. He said that he had transferred his effects and a briefcase containing 222,000 pengős to his flat in Erzsebét királyné utca in Zugló. This was at the ‘city limits’ and may have functioned as the first Soviet detention and interrogation centre at the rear of the advancing Red Army, but it’s perhaps more likely that he was in the Soviet headquarters which had been established at the Széchenyi baths building where he could have made contact with officers of high rank and position. On 15 January, there was one final attempt to blow up the Budapest ghetto. Kasztner claimed that the destruction was prevented by General Winkelmann, acting under the orders of Kurt Becher, the SS officer with whom Kasztner had been negotiating on behalf ‘the Joint’, the international Zionist organisation. Although Kasztner was in Vienna during the siege of Budapest, making the ‘trade’ of twenty million francs with Becher, he claimed that the high-ranking officer called Winkelmann, who forbade the Arrow-Cross government’s action. The Germans told the Arrow-Cross minister that emptying the ghetto would not be in the best interests of Germany. Of course, many claimed, at Nuremberg, that they had acted ‘heroically’ in terms of humanity in the dying days of the Reich.

On the morning of the 16th or 17th, Wallenberg caused a stir when he appeared at the International ghetto, at the Swedish Embassy office at Tátra utca 6, together with a Soviet lieutenant colonel and Langfelder. At this point, the eye-witness accounts differ, but they agree that he left in a car headed east of the city centre, towards Gödölő and Debrecen. But it seems that the Soviet motorcycle escort took them on a roundabout route through the city, either due to the military operations or to scout out the diplomat’s personal connections and learn of his future plans. It also appears that the promise that he was free to leave was pure bluff. But in 1947, the Soviet authorities issued a statement denying that Wallenberg and his Hungarian driver had been taken away by their forces. They pointed out that:

It must not be forgotten that in an area where the Soviet forces then were, in that period when very heavy fighting was taking place in Hungary, all sorts of possibilties could have arisen. Wallenberg travelled at his own risk in areas controlled by Soviet forces.

On the 16th, before Wallenberg’s putative departure for Debrecen, the quarter containing the ‘protected houses’ was liberated, and the morning of the 18th brought the other tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest release from the Arrow-Cross terror, from mining and from air-raids. Advancing from house-to-house (often from cellar to cellar), the Soviet forces reached the Károly körút end of the central ghetto. They demolished the wooden gates of the ghetto, and in several places the palisades too. Hansi Brand remembered that it had been snowing the night before and, when she looked outside, the smell of fresh snow seemed stronger than the stench of corpses and smoke. She also recalled the few moments of quiet after Pest fell. In front of ‘the Glass House’, the young halutzim ran out to hug and kiss the first Soviet soldiers they saw. Their enthusiasm was so great that some of the soldiers grabbed their guns to free themselves. The houses and gateways in the ghetto, the streets too, presented a lamentable sight, and the sight and stench of death dominated everywhere. Outside the arcade of the Dohány utca synagogue, heaps of corpses lay in the street, frozen hard. Burials began at once in the garden, and the victims lie there to this day. A total of 2,281 bodies were buried in twenty-four common graves, forty-five had been shot – twenty-four women and twenty-one men. The great majority had been dead for weeks and very many were totally naked so that a very large number were unidentifiable. A large proportion of the dead was elderly. Lack of vehicles made the work of burial more difficult, as did the frozen ground and the revulsion felt by the people.

After the Fall – The Battle for Buda:

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Along the Danube, the hotels and restaurants were on fire. German and Hungarian troops withdrew from Pest into Buda and the Germans then blew up the five bridges across the Danube that linked the two halves of the city. Remnants of the German and Hungarian armies crossed over the badly damaged Chain Bridge into the ruins of the old Castle District just before the bridge was destroyed. There were thousands of casualties. The narrow streets and burning buildings made it difficult to reach the bridgehead, and the bridge itself was continually bombarded. Within Buda, particularly around the central fortress which was defended by SS troops, the fighting was intense. Buda also came under heavy attacks both from the air and by advancing Soviet troops from the west. Still, the German Command deemed that the hills were defendable. Of the thirty thousand  German soldiers who eventually tried to break out of Budapest, only 624 reached the German lines. On the same day that Pest fell to the Soviets, Domokos Szent-Iványi returned from his ill-fated diplomatic mission in Moscow, arriving in Debrecen, where a provisional Hungarian government had been formed, with the support of the Soviets. He recalled feeling ‘helpless’ as …

… power was already in the hands of the Russian secret service and the power and influence of Gerő, Rákosi … and of the Hungarian Secret Police was steadily growing.

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The provisional government, headed by Miklós Béla Dálnoki, a general who had gone over to the Soviets, signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in Moscow on 20 January. Under the terms of the agreement, Hungary was to declare war on Germany; evacuate all territory occupied since 31 December 1937, and pay $300 million in reparations to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. An Allied Control Commission was established to oversee compliance, and Soviet troops remained to occupy the country. Major-General William S Key headed the US delegation to the Commission, and arrived in Hungary in February, overseeing a force of thirty-six enlisted men and sixteen officers on the Commission’s staff.

Eventually, worn out by the sheer force of the Red Army attack, the Germans attempted to break out of their stronghold in Buda, and all but a few thousand were killed or captured. Meanwhile, with Wallenberg’s departure for Debrecen, the Swedish humanitarian action was considered finished in the Tátra utca office. The head of the office, Hugö Wohl, prepared a report and inventory. He put the number of the persons provided with protective passes (SP) and other official Swedish documents at four thousand, the number of Hungarian colleagues named as officials at two hundred, and the total number of their family numbers at four hundred. He estimated the number supplied with Red Cross letters of protection at 2,500. On 27 January, the same day as the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz, a temporary executive committee made an announcement on behalf of the Royal Swedish Embassy. It addressed all the holders of the SP:

Seeing that persons of Jewish origin are now citizens enjoying equal rights, activity has come to a natural end.

More than two-thirds of the pre-war of Hungarian Jewish population perished in the Holocaust, and it might have been as high as three-quarters had it not been for the work of Wallenberg and the Swiss Vice-Consul, Carl Lutz, who rescued tens of thousands of European Jews, many of whom had found a haven in Budapest as Jewish refugees from all over central-eastern Europe. Lutz, a career diplomat who had been educated in the United States, was a religious man who was a convinced anti-Nazi. Seventy-two buildings in Budapest were declared annexes of the Swiss Legation, with diplomatic immunity. Working from the US Legation, because the Swiss represented US interests during the war, he is credited with saving over sixty thousand Jews.

On 9 February, the Budapest Police HQ announced that after 18 January the Soviet authorities had removed the police from their headquarters and barracks. Policemen had to make their way to work every day, and scarcely half of them reached their stations. They were picked up on such a scale that there were as many as three thousand of them in a prison camp in Gödöllő. Vilmos Bondor summed up the nature of the close of the fifty-one-day Battle of Budapest and the first months of 1945:

In the capital, chaos reigned. Russian deserters formed gangs of bandits and plundered. The pockets of SS did the same. The newly appointed Hungarian authorities looked on helplessly. They lacked manpower and experience. Police appointments were made from among the comrades, and those with any expertise were soon in prison. But what made their work more risible was that they were not to touch Russian soldiers, who did as they pleased.

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Buda eventually fell on 13 February. The City finally surrendered. The entire siege of the capital had lasted one hundred days. The combined Soviet and Romanian losses in Budapest totalled more than seventy thousand men; the Hungarian army lost 16,500; the German army, thirty thousand. More than forty thousand civilians had been killed, including some seven thousand Jews.

About forty thousand Hungarian troops were taken prisoner by the Soviets. To round out the numbers, they took fifty thousand civilians as well. Everyone in uniform, even firefighters and postmen, was taken prisoner, as were men lining up for bread or going in search for water.  Around one-third of the soldiers and civilians were returned to Hungary after a few years of forced labour in the Soviet Union. Of the fifty thousand Jews ‘lent’ to the Reich to build fortifications around Vienna, only about twenty thousand were still alive in April 1945. Fewer than one in ten of the men in the Jewish labour brigades survived the war. During the fifty-one day battle, a quarter of the buildings were destroyed and three-quarters of them were damaged. Not a single bridge remained over the Danube. The ruins and rubble of the Chainbrige can be seen on the right. In the background, the effect of the fierce fighting around Buda Castle is apparent.  As at Stalingrad, Hitler did not permit any negotiation by his already completely conquered armies leading to some deal.

The German military command in Budapest asked for reinforcements, but Hitler had none to spare. Ignoring advice from his generals, he had thrown eight divisions into a last desperate counter-attack on the Allied troops in the Saar region in an attempt to retake the Ardennes borderlands in the ‘Battle of the Bulge’. The last attempt by the German forces in the capital in the Buda hills and the Pilis forests occurred through contravention of the Führer’s orders; by then it was futile to do so, however. Hitler’s determination to retain the possession of the Vienna Basin and the oil fields in Zala County by holding out in the Budapest area and thus buying time was also doomed to failure. When Hitler finally decided to send a Panzer division to Hungary, it was too late to relieve the besieged forces in Buda and was used instead to hold up the Red Army’s advance into western Hungary, with its important oil-fields. After Budapest was lost, Hitler’s Sixth Panzer Division still tried to hold out west of Lake Balaton against the combined Ukrainian and Russian assault.

‘Potato-peeling’ – The Mass Rapine of the Red Army:

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Above: Two Red Army soldiers during the Battle of Budapest in the early weeks of 1945. The behaviour of some of the Soviet troops in the aftermath of the battle became infamous.

For their part, the soldiers of the Red Army, who had been told by Stalin to capture the Hungarian capital in ‘a few days’ had taken more than a hundred days to force a surrender. In the immediate aftermath of their victory, some of the Soviets took their frustrations on the women of Budapest. Ivan Polcz was one of the first to witness what happened. He was thirteen on 11 February, just two days before the surrender, and was the only child of a respectable middle-class Hungarian family. During the siege, he and his parents had hidden in the cellar of a relative’s house in the suburbs. They had all heard rumours of how the Soviets ‘did not respect women at all’ but many people did not believe that the Red Army soldiers would commit rape. Two nights before Ivan’s birthday, everyone in the cellar had heard heavy bombing. And then, he said, all of a sudden two Russian soldiers wearing white stormed into the cellar holding machine guns. The Red Army soldiers shouted that they were looking for Germans. Finding none, they ran back into the street. Horrified, Ivan watched as half an hour later German soldiers came into the cellar. But, not finding their enemy, they rushed away again. Then, on the night of his birthday, …

… an incredible number of Russian soldiers stormed into the cellar with guns. If it hadn’t been so frightening we would have been laughing our heads off because they were dressed with other people’s clothes. Men were even wearing women’s boots … They asked us if we had jewellery, but apart from taking our watches and some of the clothes which they liked they didn’t do anything. … And so we were quite OK with them. And we thought to ourselves that the idea they were aggressive with women, this is probably an invention of the Nazis to threaten us.

But a few days later, the atmosphere changed. At about ten o’clock at night, two Red Army soldiers came into the cellar where, by now, about twenty-five people were sheltering, a mixture of elderly couples, younger couples and children. The expressions on the soldiers’ faces were menacing. One of the young Hungarian husbands acted as interpreter and asked the soldiers what they wanted. When they told him, Ivan remembered, ‘he started to tremble’. They had said that they needed a woman:

Of course, the interpreter got frightened because he was a young man with a wife who was ther on one of those beds … so he said that there were only mothers and elderly people, and they should leave us alone. I was terribly afraid because my mother was … for her age, forty-eight … a good-looking woman. Next to her was her younger sister, and next to them was a counsellor from the embassy with his wife and his sixteen-year-old daughter.

When the soldiers reached the far end of the cellar they found a young blonde woman of seventeen, the maid of the couple who owned the villa. This was the woman they chose. They grabbed her and she started crying and pleading, shouting to the rest of the people in the cellar, Please help me! Help me! Ivan went on:

Everybody was frozen – a stone. … This was a terrible moment. I will never forget about it. Everybody knew by then that the women were in real danger. … And then something happened which was at first sight quite strange. The owner of the house, a retired military officer, started to talk to the maid. He said, “Please make this sacrifice for the sake of the country. And with this you will be able to save the other women here who will never forget this.” At the time, I thought this was a very mean statement, that he told her to “make this sacrifice on the altar of the Hungarian nation”, but in a way she did save my mother and all the other young women there. … Then there was quite a lot of crying and the Russian grabbed her and took her upstairs … and after fifteen minutes this girl staggered back down the stairs. She was absolutely collapsing, and she said that she had been the victim of a very fierce atrocity and rape, and this animal even beat her up because she had been crying. And of course everyone else was crying … when the saw this poor girl they didn’t even dare to look at her. … It was a terrible case. … Even today I can still remember it quite vividly and I get gossebumps, even though I am seventy-five years of age.    

The German and Arrow-Cross terror had been ended, but the survivors were already experiencing the first signs of a form of despotism and dictatorship which was just as inhuman in its consequences. In the aftermath of the Red Army’s advance across  Budapest, rape became almost ubiquitous. The pointless struggle had brought upon the country a series of ‘last-ditch’ sufferings, dreadful ruin and destruction. The worst suffering of the Hungarian population is due to the rape of women, a contemporary report from the Swiss embassy in Budapest asserted. The supporting evidence for this statement was clear:

Rapes – affecting all age groups from ten to seventy – are so common that very few women in Hungary have been spared. … The misery is made worse by the sad fact that many Russian soldiers are diseased and there are absolutely no medicines in Hungary.

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Having hidden successfully from the Arrow-Cross for months, Jewish women and children were now just as much under threat from the Red Army as their gentile neighbours. One of Daisy Birnbaum’s friends, eleven-year-old Kati, had been hiding for weeks with her mother in the coal cellar of an apartment house where, from time to time, they received food from unknown benefactors who were not permitted to see them. Daisy commented that her mother saved her from sensing the deadly danger that surrounded them. Their area was liberated on 15 January, but at that point, Kati was not permitted out because her mother feared the Russians. The Soviet soldiers had a euphemism for their actions, which reveals how ‘routine’ and systematic it became. It was called ‘peeling potatoes’, based on the requirement of the subjugated women to help out in the military kitchens. However, they were taken from their homes and raped. Ági, a (then) twelve-year-old Jewish schoolfriend of Daisy’s, who went to live in a villa in Buda after her mother was taken into forced labour, recalled how, after finding her ‘Aunt Joli’, her mother’s friend there, they first came into contact with Russian soldiers:

There was very little to eat; they were all hungry, all the time. However, the sound of cannons was getting closer and, suddenly, Russian soldiers appeared in the street. Fortunately, Aunt Joli spoke Slovak and was able to communicate with them. Nonetheless, the Russians reappeared each night and behaved in a horrendous fashion, trying to carry off Aunt Joli ‘to peel potatoes’. She saved herself by pointing out that she had to take care of the children. The situation became unbearable, and they escaped on foot, until a horse-drawn carriage, heading for Budaörs, gave them a lift. There, they moved into an empty house, sharing it with a large number of refugees. However, just a few hours later, there too Russian soldiers arrived, drunk, threatening them with their machine guns, and wanting to take Aunt Joli with them. The children had to get up from their sleeping places to show how many of them were in Aunt Joli’s charge. The soldiers sobered up by the morning and apologised.

003Ági B in 1939.

Hansi Brand, the wife of the Zionist activist Joel Brand, who worked closely with Rezső Kasztner to get the surviving Hungarian Jews from Budapest to Palestine, was also threatened by Soviet soldiers in the cellars, where she hid with her two children. One of her boys, although still quite small, told his mother to hide behind him in the corner. When the Russians told the women to come and help “peel potatoes”, Hansi remained in the corner, hidden by her two little boys while the other women went. She wondered how Dani knew what to do but later realised bitterly that “he had seen so much already, his childhood was lost.” She and her boys survived the siege underground.

Not all the women were able to escape the Russian soldiers, however.  The victims of rape included children like fifteen-year-old Ágnes Karlik, whose harrowing testimony has been recorded on the BBC Behind Closed Doors series which accompanies Laurence Rees’ (2008) book (see the list of sources below). Ágnes had been hiding in a cellar with her family during the siege and she found the first Red Army soldiers she met not unpleasant, … just making sure there were no enemies in the building. They didn’t stay long. They tried, actually, to be friendly. But then ‘these rough type of soldiers’ entered the building and they started to pull women out… to come and help peel potatoes. She and her sister were dragged outside, where there was snow on the ground, and into a tent nearby.  She was raped twice, once in the tent in front of her grandmother, and the second time the following night by two Soviet soldiers in a secluded section of the cellar. Her sister, aged fourteen, was also raped. They were sexually naive, having no idea what was happening to them, and the effect on Ágnes of these rapes was profound and lifelong:

For a long time I felt really resentful against men, being able to do such a thing without any sort of good reason. … It makes you feel really resentful against mankind, more or less.

In the hospital, immediately after the second attack, Ágnes was given an internal examination to check that she was not seriously injured. This was not an uncommon occurrence as a result of the severity and violence of the attacks that many women endured. Neither were these cases confined to Budapest, although – according to this author’s oral anecdotal sources – they seem to have been more common there. Medical student Barna Andrásofszky witnessed a case in a village outside the capital in the spring of 1945. He was called to a house by an elderly woman and was told that there was a sick young girl inside. When he went into the living room, he saw that it was in ‘disarray’ and a young woman of about twenty-five was lying on a bed, covered with a blanket:

I went up to her and took the blanket – it was covered with blood. And she was crying and she kept saying that she was going to die, and that she didn’t want to live any more.

Barna was told that the young woman had been raped by between ten and fifteen men. She was bleeding intensely from internal injuries sustained in the attack. He could not stem the flow of blood, and the woman was taken away to a hospital. He commented on this experience:

It was very difficult to see as a reality what the Nazi propaganda was spreading. But here we could see that in reality. And also we heard about many other terrible situations like this.

There have been many Red Army veterans who have tried to contextualise these crimes as a common, if regrettable, historical occurrence in times of war. But in the context of the Second World War in Europe, this excuse is not sustainable. As far as the crime of rapine was concerned, the Soviets were ‘in a league of their own’ according to Laurence Rees and other historians. The Western Allies committed no comparable crimes of this enormity, and mass rape was not tolerated either as a ‘weapon’ of war or as one of the ‘spoils’ of war. In Hungary, both were used to excuse it, as it began before the surrender and continued long after. There are no accurate numbers for the overall number of women raped by Soviet men in Hungary, but the crime was clearly conducted on a massive scale. One estimate is that around fifty thousand were raped in Budapest alone, and, even today, the silence from the countryside can be interpreted as the result of the understandable reluctance of young women and their families to report the crime unless it resulted in a medical emergency, as in the case ‘coincidentally’ reported to Barna Andrásofszky. From the capital itself, some cases were reported to the Soviet military authorities in 1945. The report came from the Hungarian Communists in Köbánya, a suburb on the eastern approaches to the city. They claimed that when the Red Army arrived, they committed a series of sexual crimes in an outbreak of 

… mindless, savage hatred run riot. Mothers were raped by drunken soldiers in front of their children and husbands. Girls as young as twelve were dragged from their fathers and raped in succession by ten to fifteen soldiers and often infected with venereal disease. … We know that intelligent members of the Red Army are communists, but if we turn to them for help they have fits of rage and threaten to shoot us, saying: “And what did you do in the Soviet Union? You not only raped our wives before our eyes, but for good measure you killed them together with their children, set fire to our villages and razed our cities to the ground.”

As a result, nothing official was said about the crimes. Pravda, the Soviet newspaper, never referred to them. Although there were occasional attempts to enforce the official line that rape committed by Soviet soldiers was a crime, so few cases were prosecuted that it is impossible not to conclude that the offence was often tolerated by the Soviet authorities. One of the few Red Army soldiers prepared to acknowledge that rapes occurred at all in occupied eastern Europe, Fiodor Khropatiy, remarked that:

… no-one paid attention to these things. On the contrary, soldiers gossiped about it, and they were proud, they felt like heroes, that he slept with such and such a woman, one or two or three. This is what soldiers shared with each other … it was normal behaviour. Even if somebody was killed, such a thing wouldn’t be reported, to say nothing of the fact of a soldier sleeping with a girl. … I feel hurt, because our army earned itself such a reputation, and I feel angry about the people who were acting that way. I am negative about such things, very negative. … To some extent, I can understand the soldiers. If you are at war for four years, and in the most horrible conditions, this … violent behaviour can be justified. I can justify the sodiers’ desire to rape a woman, but not … the actual performance. Of course, it’s natural to understand the desire to have a woman, because officers and soldiers, for four years, were deprived of any sex.

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Fiodor Khropatiy estimated that a sizeable minority, perhaps as great as thirty per cent, committed rape. Stalin himself justified this crime on more than one occasion when it was brought to his attention, in public, including in the winter of 1944-45, claiming, angrily, that his eastern European allies ought to understand if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle. On another occasion, when he was told that Red Army soldiers were sexually mistreating German refugees, he is reported to have said: We lecture our soldiers too much; let them have some initiative. The frustrations of the Red Army besiegers were first taken out on the women of Budapest in acts of mass rapine, but they were then repeated all across eastern Europe as 1945 progressed, especially in Germany.

The ‘Changing of the Guard’:

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Aside from the physical and psychological toll on Hungary taken by the last year of the war in Eastern Europe, forty per cent of the national wealth, accumulated by the work of generations, had also been lost. Meanwhile, society had fallen apart, and it quickly turned out that it was incapable of resisting the new tyranny, the Stalinist dictatorship. On his return from Moscow to Debrecen on 18 January, Domokos Szent-Iványi had written in his manuscript journal of the desperate, almost hopeless situation in which Hungary found herself in 1945. He felt that the country had once again been ‘sacrificed by the West’ and that the dismemberment of Central and in particular East-Central Europe made possible the extension of Nazi and later of Soviet domination in Europe. In February, Colonel-General Gábor Faragho, one of the three original members of the Hungarian Delegation to the Kremlin, where he had signed the provisional armistice terms on 11 October, and who had now been made Minister for Food and Supplies, drove from Debrecen to Budapest, escorted by the Soviet military. Szent-Iványi asked Faragho to contact members of the “intelligentsia” to establish a liberal democratic Party, thus completing the political basis for a pluralist national assembly and interim government, since four parties had already been formed. Out of these conversations, ‘a rather non-viable political Party’ was formed.

But, in these early months of 1945, a coalition of parties, the National Independence Front had brought together the leading parties including the Smallholders, Communists and Social Democrats. Despite their conflicting outlooks and endeavours, consensus still prevailed as to the most immediate tasks. Its goals were to establish independence and break with Hitler; reconstruct the war-torn economy through land reform and some nationalisation of industry; encourage the efforts of private enterprise; maintain close co-operation with the neighbouring countries, with the United States and the Soviet Union. The first task in achieving these was to sign an armistice with the allies which took place on 20 January, requiring Hungary to liquidate all pro-German and Fascist organisations and to accept the supervision of the Allied Control Commission as to the execution of these stipulations. As the latter body was under the direction of Marshal Voroshilov, this last clause in effect legalised Soviet influence, especially as it was in the authority of the Commission to ban political parties, to arrest people and to exercise censorship.

The ‘changing of the guard’ also started at the differing levels of administration, and special committees were charged with ascertaining whether the post-1939 conduct of officials violated Hungarian interests. The gendarmerie was dissolved and its tasks transferred to a reorganised and enlarged police force. As both of these operations took place under the auspices of the Communist-dominated Ministry of the Interior, the results were quite predictable. Simultaneously with the banning of twenty-five parties and associations qualified as ‘extreme rightist’, the ÁVO (State Security Police) started to make arrests, and ‘people’s courts’, each consisting of lay members and a trained judge, began to prosecute those charged with war crimes. Similarly to 1919-20, among the sixty thousand who were charged and the ten thousand who were sentenced by summary procedures, there were many victims of a political showdown, and those who could not be brought to court but were considered as personae non-gratae were interned by the police without further ado. Nevertheless, the majority of those who received sentences were indeed guilty of crimes against humanity.

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Of the wartime political leaders, Horthy was in exile in Portugal, where he eventually died, and Kallay and Lakatos were spared because of their anti-German stance, though it had been somewhat equivocal. But Bárdossy, Imrédy, Sztójay, Szálasi and the Arrow-Cross ministers were among the 189 executed. The Provisional Government also undertook land reform. All of the coalition parties agreed that the system of latifundia would be liquidated and that Hungary would be transformed from a country of three million landless labourers or peasants with seven acres or less into one whose agrarian sector was dominated by prosperous peasant farms or ‘small-holdings’, but also including collective large holdings.

The land reform had far-reaching social, economic and political consequences, not least because the Communist Party was able to use the glory of satisfying the hunger for land to win support in rural Hungary.  Their Minister for Agriculture in the coalition government, Imre Nagy, became especially popular, remembered from then on as ‘the land distributor’. Meanwhile, the Communists began to fill the political vacuum in Budapest, creating a mass party of half a million members as a result of an unscrupulous recruiting campaign. Among other social groups, some among the decimated Jewry joined out of gratitude to the liberators and a search for a new sense of community, while their previous tormentors, the Arrow-Cross men, were rewarded with impunity if they exchanged their green party membership card for a red one.

002Village people recalled how at least one of their number, who had helped terrorise and deport the Jewish community in Apostag (whose synagogue, now the Village Hall, is pictured on the right) before its deportation, was not only able to escape justice for his crimes but also became a local policeman. Obviously, by the spring of 1945, the wheel of fate had come full circle. When the Soviet forces eventually ‘liberated’ the last Hungarian town in early April 1945, barely a month was left of World War II in Europe. Even before it had ended, the Hungarian people had been forced to exchange one form of dictatorship for another.

 

 

Sources:

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

Marianna D. Birnbaum (2016), 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. Budapest: Corvina.

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

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

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

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

 

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; part three – Labour’s Slump: 1929-31.   2 comments

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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In response to John Gorman’s request for photographs for his 1980 book (see the list of sources below), Helen Hathaway of the Reading North Labour Party contributed the picture of women supporters of The Daily Herald at the start of the circulation campaign for the election of the 1929 Labour government. Under the editorship of George Lansbury, before the First World War, the newspaper had become uncompromisingly socialist and was a paper for rebels, supporting strikes, opposing wars and providing a platform for suffragettes and syndicalists. But during the war, Lansbury’s pacifist stance meant that it could not compete with the war stories of the right-wing popular newspapers which were avidly sought by the public. From September 1914, the paper appeared only as a weekly. In 1919, there was a resurgence of the paper, financed by the trade unions and Co-operative societies, but it continued to struggle until 1922 when Ernest Bevin led the TUC and Labour Party into joint ownership. ‘Labour has arrived’, proclaimed the poster proudly held by the working-class women lined up for the photograph, ‘heralding’ the advent of the second Labour government, as shown below:

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Elected in 1929 for the first time as the largest party in Parliament, the second Labour Government had succeeded the Conservatives relatively smoothly, largely as a result of the usual ‘wax and wane’ of party popularity with the electorate. The Labour Party was now the second greatest of the political camps in Britain, having clearly displaced the Liberal Party as the main rivals of the Tories to power. Though its professed ‘creed’ was socialism, it had little in common with the socialist parties on the Continent. Its backbone was the trade unions, which were, according to the writer and politician John Buchan, the most English thing in England. They were more radical than socialist and in a sense more conservative than radical. Their object was not to pull things up by the roots but to put down even deeper roots of their own. Their faults lay in occasional blindness of eye and confusion of head, not in any unsoundness of temper or heart. As a Scottish Unionist MP, Buchan recalled that the hundreds of new Labour MPs …

… brought to the House of Commons a refreshing realism, for they spoke as experts on many practical things, and their stalwart vernacular was a joy amid the clipped conventions of parliamentary speech. But larger questions they were apt to judge on too low a plane and with imperfect knowledge. The corrective was to be looked for in the socialist intellectuals, of whom they were inclined to be suspicious, but who applied to policy a wider education and broader sympathies. … as a group they were serious students of public affairs, with a genuine scientific apparatus behind them. It was well for Labour, and well for the country, to have thislaboratory of experiment and thought. 

It had been five years since Labour had carried the ‘Bolshie’ tag and Ramsay MacDonald introduced his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as any of the previous governments to stem the rising tide of unemployment.  But although Labour was the largest party in Parliament, the Labour government of 1929 was still a minority government. Besides, any government, whatever its election programme, has to face the same problems as its predecessor. On taking office, the Labour government floundered in a quagmire of conservative remedies for the worldwide slump. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, the newly-appointed ‘Minister for Unemployment’, J. H. Thomas, had boasted I have the cure as he ‘hob-nobbed’ with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar. He demonstrated a complete lack of imagination and ineptitude but was not aided by the resistance of the Civil Service, the innate conservatism of Snowden at the Exchequer and the world-wide financial and economic crises which beset this administration. In her diary for 21 December 1929, Beatrice Webb recorded her conversation with ‘Jimmy’ Thomas, in which she tried to console the unfortunate minister, who naturally thought he was being scapegoated for the Government’s failure to keep its election promise:

We sat down for a chat together. The poor man was almost hysterical in his outbursts of self-pity; everyone had been against him and the ‘damns’ flowed on indiscriminately. Margaret Bondfield and her d_ insurance bill, the d_ floods, the d_ conspiracy between restless Lloyd George and weathercock W. Churchill to turn out the Labour Government, and the d_ windbags of the Clyde responsible for his not fulfilling the d_ pledge which he had never made, to stop this d_ unemployment. There is honesty and shrewdness of his deprecations of doles and relief work for the unemployed. But he took no counsel, not even with Mosley and Lansbury who had been appointed to help, either about the appointment of his staff or about remedial measures. Then he lost his nerve and with it his strength. Poor Jimmy is egregiously vain and therefore subject to panic when flattery ceases and abuse begins. For years he has looked upon himself as the Future Prime Minister; today the question is whether he will be fit for any position at all in a future Labour Cabinet. …

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

Neither is there any evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 sought to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield (pictured standing on the left below), now Minister of Labour (and first woman minister of any government), did not consider that the continuance of the policy should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes. Oswald Mosley also tried hard to get Thomas, whom he considered a ‘useless minister’, to ‘do something’ about the unemployed. He had a ‘sensible plan’ for increased allowances and organised public works, but the ‘old men’ of the party didn’t want to know about it. So he walked out on it early in 1931 to form the ‘New Party’, taking some of the more dynamic men of the Left like John Strachey. But they soon left him when he took off down the right-hand road to Fascism. However, the scale and widespread nature of unemployment in these years, making it more than a structural problem in the ‘staple’ industries, tended to preclude either the possibility of a radical response to the problem, while at the same time preventing the effective operation of the transference scheme. There were few areas that were not experiencing a significant level of unemployment during these years which actually showed the greatest convergence between regional and national figures in terms of absolute volumes of workless.

 

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Ramsay MacDonald was, by all accounts, including that of René Cutforth, a young journalist at the time, a noble-looking creature, in the manner of some great Highland chieftain. Originally the Labour Government of 1924 had had some qualms about wearing even evening dress when attending Buckingham Palace or in Parliament, remembering the lone cloth cap in the House of Commons of their first independent Labour member, Keir Hardie. MacDonald never subscribed to such qualms, as the picture below shows, and the higher he rose in social circles, the more he was in his element. In fact, he became something of a ‘snob’; at one time he so frequently attended the soirees of Lady Londonderry, wife of the coalowner so hated in MacDonald’s own constituency in South Wales that, and an upper-crust socialite and political hostess, that James Maxton, the ILP MP asked him in the House of Commons whether the Labour anthem was still the ‘Red Flag’ or whether it had been exchanged for ‘The Londonderry Air’. Churchill said of MacDonald that he liked the Tory atmosphere and tradition; the glamour of old England appealed to him. Of course, MacDonald was to die with the curses of those in whose service he had spent his life ringing in his ears for the ‘great betrayal’ of 1931.

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The truth is that, even before taking office and despite its pledges to solve the problem of unemployment within three months, the Labour leadership had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. The proposal of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden (on the right of the steps below) to effect economies by cutting maintenance for the unemployed was to precipitate not just the political crisis which led to the formation of a National Government, but the biggest and most controversial demonstrations witnessed in Britain since the days of the Chartists, the hunger marches of the 1930s. Snowden, according to Churchill, …

 … viewed the Socialist creed with the blistering intellectual contempt of the old Gladstonian radical. To him Toryism was a physical annoyance, and militant socialism a disease brought on by bad conditions or contagion, like rickets or mange. …

Snowden’s rigidity of doctrine was otherwise inpenetrable. Free imports, nomatter what the foreigner may do to us; the Gold Standard, no matter how short we run of gold; austere repayment of of debt, no matter how we have to borrow the money; high progressive direct taxation, even if it brings creative enegies to a standstill; the ‘Free breakfast-table’, even if it is entirely supplied from outside the British jurisdiction! …

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials … here was the High Priest entering the sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of too-long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began. …

... He was a man capable of maintaining the structure of Society while at the same time championing the interests of the masses. …

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Above: Forming the National Government, August 1931 (see full picture below).

Most of the published memoirs, with the possible exception of Churchill’s, still reek of contemporary prejudice, ignorance, and partisan blindness to facts. The historian’s interpretation of the contemporary judgements both of MacDonald and his ministers by others and by MacDonald himself should depend first on the evidence available, and secondly on analysis of this evidence on the basis of fair-minded, non-partisan criteria. The historian, seeking some ‘truer’ perspective, must recall how different the problems of 1925-31 were compared to those of 1945-51, though at both times Labour faced almost insurmountable obstacles. So, before we fast-forward to the failure and fall of the Labour government in 1931, we need to understand why and how it had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. John Buchan, writing in 1935, provides an alternative contemporary perspective to that of the Labour diarists. He took a longer-term perspective of the economic orthodoxy of the Twenties:

The main concern for Britain, as for other nations, was economic – how to keep body and soul together. In its preoccupation with material needs all the world had gone Marxist. The problem was how to pass from the unbridled extravagance of the war to a normal life. We had been living on stimulants, and we must somehow transfer ourselves from dope to diet. There was a brief gleam of prosperity just after peace, when the replacement of stocks required still further expenditure, and then the nation settled itself to a long, thankless toil in the shadows…

The first duty was to cease spending more than we could afford; no easy thing, for our obligatory expenses were almost beyond our earnings. We had to face some  eight thousand millions of war debt, and this meant a scale of taxation which crippled industry and bore crushingly on all but profiteers. … But while our costs had risen our business was declining. We had lost our industrial pre-eminence in the world’s markets … Our exports, visible and invisible, looked like soon ceasing to pay for our necessary imports. The whole nineteenth century fabric of British trade was breaking down. 

With shrinking markets, and the cost of Government, local and central, nearly three times what it had been in 1913, Britain’s economy was failing to pay its way. The fact was that industrial workers were already receiving a higher remuneration than could be justified according to the value of their products. The situation was met by a vigorous effort on the part of industry both to enlarge its range of products and to set in order its older ones. Agriculture had slipped back into a trough, but a second industrial revolution by which a variety of new businesses arose, chiefly making luxury products and based mostly in Southern and Midland England. There were also notable technical advances in production, which while improving industrial efficiency, also led to increasing unemployment. There was also a growing economic nationalism throughout much of the industrialised world, though not yet in Britain, so that the British industrialist, already heavily taxed, and facing rising costs, had to compete in export markets hedged around by tariffs, and in domestic markets against cheap foreign imports, often subsidised.

Added to all of this, at the heart of national economic policy was a banker’s policy. Deflation was the watchword of this, and the international stability of the currency was considered the key to a revival in trade. In April 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill had taken the fateful step of returning to the gold standard at the level of pre-war parity. As a result, the amount of money was curtailed, leading to a drop in internal prices while interest charges and wages remained relatively high. In turn, this added to the costs of production at home, while the price of exported goods automatically increased. This return to orthodox fiscal measures re-established Britain’s role and reputation as the world’s financial centre, but at the cost of its export trade, leading to wage troubles in the exporting industries, especially coal.  Seven difficult years followed this decision as unemployment grew and it became clear that some of Britain’s heavier industries had sunk to a permanently low level of output. Under the futile system of war debts and reparations, the debtor countries could not pay their debts since their creditors had erected colossal tariff walls, and the consequence was that their exports were diverted to Britain, the one free-trade area that remained. But the payments received for these were not used to buy British goods in return, but to buy gold with which to pay off their creditors.

The disaster was already imminent by the time Labour took charge in the summer of 1929 as the whole mechanism of the world’s commerce was out of gear, and the climax began in the autumn of that year with the downfall of America’s swollen prosperity. Historians have since argued about the extent to which the Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression which followed were caused by the First World War, as well as to the extent which it led, in turn, to the Second World War. However, from the perspective of the time, certain facts seemed undeniable. The money system of the world was no longer adequate to deal with the complexities of international trade, made even more complicated by political troubles and economic nationalism as well as by the unbalanced position of gold, and by a lack of trust of politicians and bankers among the general populations.

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

The bleak scene shown below from April 1930 at Ferryhill in the north-east coalfield features the lone figure of George Cole, local miner’s leader and militant trade unionist. The small contingent with banners and rucksacks are the north-east section of the unemployed march to London, on their way to join another thousand from Scotland, Plymouth, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and Kent. The first march of the unemployed in the thirties, it was a small demonstration compared with those to follow over the rest of the decade, but what gave it special significance was that it was the first of its kind to be directed against a Labour government. The march was organised by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), founded in 1921 as part of the British Communist Party’s ‘Class against Class’ policy. The marches, therefore, divided the loyalties of Labour members and supporters. Northampton Labour Party said that it could not support a movement in opposition to the government.

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The marchers arrived in London on May Day, to be greeted by twenty thousand at the entrance to Hyde Park, with another thirty thousand at the meeting inside. That night the weary marchers presented themselves at the Fulham Workhouse, refused to be treated as ‘casuals’, won the right to beds and food and, to the fury of the Workhouse Master, hoisted the red flag over their quarters. Ten months after taking office, the MacDonald government had failed to halt the steadily increasing number of jobless and in fact, unemployment had increased from 1,169,000 when Labour came to power to 1,770,000 by May 1930. After eighteen months in office, the numbers of workless under Labour had risen to two and a half million. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the NUWM, sarcastically remarked that as Minister of the Unemployed, J. H. Thomas is a howling success.

The conditions of working-class life had on the whole been greatly improved since the Great War. Higher wages did not lead to waste, but to higher standards of living. The average household had better food, better clothing, more margin for amusements and wider horizons of opportunities. Small wonder then that they struggled to maintain what they had won. That was for those in employment, of course. For the unemployed, who now (by the end of 1930) reached two million in number, there was a bare subsistence and tragic idleness, a steady loss of technical skill, and a slow souring and dulling of mind. In the heavy industry towns of Northern England and valleys of the South Wales Coalfield, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities. A problem of such magnitude required for its solution not only the energies of the State but the thought and good-will of every private citizen and public body. Owing partly to the work of the Prince of Wales and the National Council of Social Service, of which he was patron, these were forthcoming. People began to develop a  sense of personal and civic duty for the unemployed, especially the miners in the ‘distressed areas’.

By early 1930, the ‘social service movement’ had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the South Wales Coalfield in particular. At Brynmawr, one of the ‘blackspots’ on the northern edge of the Coalfield, over a hundred people took part in a Survey which was begun in 1929, but these were mainly professional and business people since the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Urban District Council refused to co-operate. As a former member of the ‘settlement’ reflected in the 1980s, …

… they felt that they had been slighted: they resented interference and they felt their dignity and authority undermined … the local people were suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town … the Quakers became known as the BQs (Bloody Quakers)!

Another settlement at Maes-yr-Haf in the Rhondda spawned over fifty unemployed clubs throughout the valleys from 1929 and provided an advice centre for the settlements which were established elsewhere, the first of which was at Merthyr Tydfil in 1930. Percy Watkins, Head of the Welsh Section of the National Council of Social Service, saw the settlements as representing the idea that those who had been privileged to enjoy university education should live and ‘settle’ among the workers. This was, in itself, not a new idea. Clement Attlee, the future Labour leader, had done this in the East End of London before the Great War. But what was new was the way in which these ‘settlers’ were to help open up ‘lines of communication’ between the coalfield communities and the outside world, to act as a means of cultural ‘irrigation’, in order to establish ‘an educated democracy’. Watkins and Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet before becoming Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s, combined to offer charitable help for Maes-yr-Haf for it to spread the settlement idea throughout the coalfield. At the beginning of 1930, it had become affiliated to the Educational Settlement Association and it soon became seen as a model of ‘intervention’ in working-class communities.

Some historians have suggested that the movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution, but it was not the level of funding which the government itself provided which was significant, but the way in which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct charitable funds from the Mayors of various cities, the Society of Friends and those poured in by the Carnegie Trust and Pilgrim Trust. The last of these was established by the New York businessman, Edward S. Harkness, who provided a gift of over two million pounds. The trustees included Stanley Baldwin, Lord Macmillan, Sir Josiah Stamp and John Buchan. Although a Labour Government was in power committed to ending unemployment, these men continued to exert considerable influence over the affairs of the depressed areas both in South Wales and the North of England and over the Government’s policy towards the unemployed. It was the duty of the trustees, …

… to apply their resources at key points of the present distress,  … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1931, 2,500 unemployed marched on London and were met by a baton charge of police in Hyde Park. The march was broken up on what, for a time and for some at least, became a very rough occasion (see the photo below, taken later in Hyde Park). They had deposited an enormous petition which they hoped to present to Parliament in the left luggage office at a London terminus. When they went back to pick it up, it had ‘unaccountably’ disappeared and so was never presented.

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However, the numbers involved in such demonstrations were often limited, of necessity perhaps, to a small segment of the unemployed. As the depression worsened, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended upon the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the ‘Courts of Referees’, and matters such as these took up nearly all of the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the NUWM under the leadership of Wal Hannington. But the available evidence does not suggest any accompanying widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington.

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

In early 1931, as the Labour government continued to pursue the traditional conservative remedy for a recession by cutting expenditure and wages, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from the Bank of England, among others. There had been a steady drain of gold from the Bank of England ever since the US loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe, and now the Bank of England asked the New York banks for a loan. They refused this until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. The Cabinet turned to the advice of Sir George May, former Secretary of the Prudential Insurance Company and Sir Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. At this point, few in the government were able to read the signs of the impending crisis. The warnings of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, had little effect upon some of his colleagues, whose financial creed was a blend of mysticism and emotion. During the summer, a creeping sickness was spreading over Europe, and the symptoms were becoming acute, first in Austria, then in Germany and last in Britain.

The crisis came to a head in Britain in the late summer of 1931, beginning with a conference of European Ministers in London in July provided no remedy. At the end of that month, the May Report was published, showing that the Government was overspending by a hundred and twenty million a year. It proposed cutting expenditure by ninety-six million pounds, two-thirds of which was to be made by reducing maintenance for the unemployed by twenty per cent. There followed immediately a heavy withdrawal of foreign balances, but the Bank of England failed in its approach to the United States. Without the US loan, the Government faced the prospect of having to default on its repayments which would result in Britain having to go off the gold standard. The effect of that, the Government believed, would be a drastic reduction in the pound sterling, since the gold standard was viewed as a ‘holy cow’ in international financial circles at that time.

A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only answer, and MacDonald and Snowden made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and school teachers, and to cut unemployment pay by ten per cent. The TUC Economic Committee had warned in March 1931, that the application of such a policy can only intensify the slump by reducing the purchasing power of the community thereby leading to further unemployment. Now Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a trade union delegation to a Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, told his wife Beatrice, the General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cut of unemployment insurance benefits, or salaries, or wages. But although the Opposition said the cuts were too small, half of the Cabinet refused to accept the cut in unemployment pay. There was much to be said for their point of view as they were, after all, a Labour government which had been committed to ending unemployment within three months of taking office. Unemployment had stood at one million then, but now it had reached 2.75 million: all they had been able to do for the unemployed had been to go on paying them ‘the dole’.

So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in and MacDonald resigned on 24 August, together with the rest of the government. The stricken statesman went to the Palace to tender his resignation to the King, who had arrived in Balmoral three days earlier, on the 21st, for his annual Scottish holiday only to have to return to London the next day. It was not for him to have any public opinion on economic policy or any preference among the parties. But as the ‘trustee’ of the nation,  the King felt that a national emergency should be faced by a united front. According to many popular Socialist narratives, ‘what happened next’, almost inevitably, was that MacDonald conspired with a ‘traitorous caucus’ which included Snowden and Thomas, in forming a National Government with the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, the common procedure was would have been for MacDonald to resign, and he was prepared to follow this constitutional precedent, giving way to the Conservatives, but the King’s view was supported by the senior  Ministers, and MacDonald accepted his invitation to form a National Government composed of Conservatives and Liberals as well as some of his own senior colleagues. The next day MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim the appointment to a mixed reception from his former Cabinet members, few of whom were willing to follow him.

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

Contemporary reaction to the Cabinet split and creation of the National Government in August of that year can be seen from two points of view in the following extracts from The Times and The New Statesman:

The country awakens this morning to find Mr MacDonald still Prime Minister, with the prospect of a small Cabinet representative of all three parties. The former Cabinet resigned yesterday afternoon, and a statement issued last night announced that considerable progress had been made towards settling the composition of its successor, which would be a Government of co-operation formed with the specific purposes only of carrying through a very large reduction in expenditure and raising ‘on an equitable basis’ the further funds required to balance the Budget.

All concerned are to be warmly congratulated on this result, so fully in accord with the patriotic spirit which has inspired a week’s most anxious negotiations. The Prime Minister and the colleagues of his own party who have followed him deserve in particular unqualified credit, both for the manner in which they took their political lives in their hands by by facing and forcing the break-up of the late Cabinet, and for their new decisionto translate courage in the Cabinet into courage in the country. The readiness to share the responsibility – honour is perhaps the better word – of carrying through to the end the policy of retrenchment adds enormously to the prospect of its success.

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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In many respects the situation which confronted the Cabinet was like that of August 1914. … In 1914, Mr MacDonald refused to join a War Cabinet: Mr Henderson accepted. Mr MacDonald was denounced as a traitor: Mr Henderson applauded. In leading arguments in ‘The Times’, for instance, Mr MacDonald’s patriotism is extolled, while Mr Henderson is denounced as a man who put party before country. Meanwhile, in Labour circles all over the country Mr MacDonald is being denounced … for betraying his party. … Mr MacDonald’s decision to form a Cabinet in conjunction with the Liberals and the Tories seems to us a mistake, just as it would have been a mistake for him as a pacifist to join a War Cabinet in 1914. For he must inevitably find himself at war with the the whole of organised labour, and …with all those, in all classes, who believe that the policy of reducing  the purchasing power of the consumer to meet a situation of over-production is silly economics. … An effort is being made to represent the whole issue as merely one of a ten per cent reduction in the dole and the refusal to cut it could only be based on cowardly subservience to the electorate. … We oppose it … because it is only the first step, the crucial beginning of a policy of reductions, disatrous, we believe for England and the rest of the world. …

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

On 11 September, a supplementary budget was passed by the House of Commons, which by heavy economies and increased taxes provided a small surplus for that and the forthcoming year. The cuts were duly brought into force by Philip Snowden, who remained as Chancellor. He added sixpence to income tax, ten per cent to the surtax, a penny on a pint of beer, and reduced teachers’ pay by fifteen per cent and Police, Army, Navy and Air Force pay by varying drastic amounts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence.

There was an immediate reaction to the wage cuts, as on 14 September a naval mutiny broke out in Invergordon when the ratings of three ships refused to obey orders to put to sea. According to René Cutforth, it was the ‘politest mutiny ever staged’ since no-one was hurt or even intimidated and respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who started to sing ‘The Red Flag’ were considered to be out of order by the other ratings, who preferred to sing, ‘the more we are together the merrier we shall be’, a popular drinking song. They sent a written representation of their case to the Admiralty, stating that while they refused to serve under the new rates of pay, they were willing to consider ‘a cut which they ‘consider within reason’. Although the incident was barely mentioned in the British press, garbled versions of it appeared in the foreign press, which made it look like a revolutionary rising. If the British Navy was disaffected, it was suggested, then Britain itself must be on the road to ruin.

As a result, there was another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. The government dealt quickly with the situation, reducing the cuts and restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were eventually suspended. But the run on the Bank was so exhausting that the Government which had been formed just a few weeks earlier to safeguard the gold standard was now forced to give it up anyway. Instead of crashing through the floor, however, the pound only fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value which, if anything, improved Britain’s balance of trade. John Buchan commented:

The gold standard proved to have been largely a bogy; it had seemed the only palladium when we were on it, but we found that we did very well without it. The sterling group soon became a force in the world. There was no fall in the purchasing value of the pound at home, and its depreciation in terms of certain foreign currencies was in effect a bonus to our export trade. We had redressed the inequalities of our 1925 ambitions.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact of this event on those now in government could not have been more dramatic, as Paul Adelman pointed out, with a little help from A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1972 book on The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945:

On 21 September 1931 … Britain abandoned the gold standard. Bank rate was then raised to six per cent, and for the moment this brought to an end the long-drawn-out financial crisis. As Taylor comments (in ‘English History, 1914-45):

“A few days before, a managed economy had seemed as wicked as family planning. Now, like contraception, it became a commonplace. This was the end of an age”.

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

In October, the Prime Minister went to the country as the leader of a National Government, and they were returned to power with an immense majority. The General Election of 1931 was a straight fight between the Labour Party and other parties in office led by MacDonald. In an atmosphere of monetary panic, Labour representation in the house had already been cut from 289 to 46. The National Government was returned with 554 seats, while the Labour opposition was reduced to a mere rump of 52, with the Liberals winning just sixteen seats. The country was convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster, and it had only been snatched from the brink by the noble MacDonald. The photo below shows the Transport and General Workers’ Union secretary, Ernest Bevin (on the left), at Gateshead in 1931, with a band of loyal Labour Party supporters. Abolish poverty, abolish slums, wipe out destitution reads the poster on the election van. It was Bevin that was to be wiped out, temporarily, from the parliamentary scene, losing a safe Labour seat to the National Liberal candidate by 12,938 votes.

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In the Labour Party, and in the Labour movement generally, there had never been such an uproar as the one which broke out at the end of the election, and the wound would still rankle just below the surface right into the 1970s. No name was too vile for MacDonald and his ‘apostate crew’. Accused of ‘betraying his class’ and ostracised by his own party, he became a tragic, isolated figure for the rest of his political life. Since he was at heart a warm man who needed sympathy and valued loyalty, this rough handling deeply upset him and was directly responsible for his decline and deterioration as a public figure. René Cutforth praised MacDonald’s patriotism, which he identified as the main motivation for his political decisions:

MacDonald was a Victorian. His loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. When it was seen by him to conflict with his socialism, it was the socialism that lost out. Though for the rest of his life he was quite sure that he had done his duty by the nation and was unjustly put upon, something in him gave way. … 

According to Winston Churchill, Philip Snowden was similarly motivated by his deep love of Britain and his studiously concealed, but intense pride in British greatness. So, these two key questions still remain for historians to answer:

  • Was MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government one of patriotism or pragmatism?

  • How far did it demonstrate the importance of the consensual nature of British politics, even in times of national crisis?

From the 1960s, historians have been able to look at MacDonald’s decision in a slightly longer-term perspective than just the crisis of July-September 1931 and the subsequent October election. Robert Skidelsky’s analysis of the second Labour government, with his emphasis on the distinction between economic radicals and economic conservatives, began this discussion in 1970, although Ralph Miliband had published his Marxist critique of Parliamentary Socialism in 1961. Perhaps Skidelsky had this study in mind when he wrote that previous studies of MacDonald’s second government had tended to reinforce the tendency to view interwar politics in terms of a struggle between socialism and capitalism, between the Labour Party and the ‘Rest’. The real division, between radicals and conservatives, cut right across party lines, with the latter defeating the former. This economic debate was centred on unemployment, ten per cent of which Skidelsky claims was ‘endemic’ in the 1920s. It was often argued that before Keynes’ General Theory (1936) governments were bound to pursue conservative, orthodox, economic policies. Yet, as Skidelsky pointed out …

… most economists and most businessmen at the time rejected the ‘treasury view’, and dissent from orthodoxy increased progressively as traditional policies failed to restore prosperity. By 1929 there existed a substantial body of economic and political support for a radical unemployment policy embracing an expansionist monetary policy and a big programme of government investment. … 

Why then, he asked, did the Labour Party fail to make use of this dissent for the ends of a radical unemployment policy? He argued that the consequences of that failure determined the politics of the following decade and that it was a failure that could have been avoided. Usually, criticism of MacDonald and his colleagues started with their handling of the financial crisis which began in early 1931, rather than with their omissions over the previous two years. But whereas between 1929 and 1931 there were plenty of effective choices open to the Government, in 1931 itself there was virtual unanimity on the need to defend the gold standard. But MacDonald broke with half his Cabinet, not over economic policy, but over primary loyalty:

As Prime Minister he considered his first duty was to the ‘national interest’ as it was almost universally conceived; the Labour Party saw its first duty to its own people. … The real criticism of MacDonald is not that he formed the National Government, but that under his leadership, the Labour Government had drifted into a position which left it so little choice. … the Government rejected Conservative protection, the Liberal national development loan, the Keynesian and Mosleyite amalgams of both, preferring instead the advice of the least progressive sections of the ‘economic establishment’.    

Skidelsky’s ‘neo-Keynesian’ approach was challenged by Ross McKibben in his 1975 Past and Present article, who criticises the narrowness of an interpretation which was chiefly interesting as an explanation of the Labour Party’s apparent economic conservatism, but didn’t properly identify the alternative strategies available to MacDonald. McKibben provided some useful comparative material to support those who argued for a deflationary policy. He argued that the government fell essentially because it failed to agree on a programme of budgetary economies that would satisfy both the Conservatives and the Liberals, the latter party providing the majority which Labour, by itself, was short of in the Commons.  McKibben emphasised that …

The ‘desertion’ of MacDonald caused great bitterness and generated a partisan history usually designed to justify the behaviour of one side or the other in the debacle. … a newer school has sought only to explain why the Labour government did not adopt economic policies which might appear to have been obviously the right ones. Why did it not, for example, attempt to reverse economic contraction by a programme of public works financed by budget deficits, or by tax-cuts, or a policy less untypical of a socialist party – by a redistribution of income that might have raised demand? Why was the government apparently so inflexibly attached to existing monetary policies?

The 1929 Labour government assumed, first, that the problems of the British economy were partly structural, and secondly, that Britain’s place in the international economy almost uniquely influenced its monetary policies. These assumptions were related: structural weakness in the older export-based industries led to falling exports and payment difficulties. On the other hand, the requirements of ‘the City’ led to monetary policies that made internal economic reconstruction difficult. Both these problems weres were powerful disincentives to economic unorthodoxy when it had become obvious that British industry had failed in the Twenties because it was still focused on the old staples, producing goods that people no longer wanted or needed. McKibben further argues that there were practical alternatives available to the Labour government, but these were not ‘drift or reflation’ but rather ‘drift or deflation’. This strategy would not have been such a ‘leap in the dark’, as there was already plenty of evidence from around the world of its efficacy as a remedy:

Until the crisis of July-August 1931, Britain alone of the major countries seriously affected by the depression refused to follow deflationary policies. Her relatively generous social services were not only maintained but somewhat increased in scope; despite the shrinkage of the tax-base, government expenditure continued to rise; no serious attempt was made to balance the budget.

Consequently, when the pressure to abandon drift and adopt deflation became too strong, the government collapsed. Two pressures came together, in fact: the pressure to solve Britain’s internal budgetary problems by deflation which reached a peak when the May Report was published on 31 July, and, almost simultaneously, the pressure created by the European liquidity crisis reaching London, which immediately called into question the exchange rate of the pound. The budgetary crisis and the exchange crisis had been distinct phenomena before this point, but throughout August 1931 they played off each other like thunder and lightning in a perfect storm.

Adelman provided some useful criticisms of Skidelsky’s assertion that the economic failures of the Labour Government before the crisis of 1931 were a necessary consequence of the ‘Utopian ethic’ to which the party was committed. On this, Skidelsky had written:

The Labour Party’s commitment to a nebulous Socialism made it regard the work of the ‘economic radicals’ such as Keynes as mere ‘tinkering’, when in fact it was they who were providing the real choice. It was the failure of the Labour Party to recognise that this was the choice that doomed it to failure and sterility in this crucial period.

In a subsequent article, published in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin in 1970, Skidelsky went further, arguing that the Labour Party’s failure was a failure, not so much of socialism itself, but of Victorian liberalism, the parent ideology from which British socialism sprang and which, in its economic aspect at least, had persisted virtually unchallenged well into the twentieth century. Adelman argued that both Skidelsky’s original thesis, and this later refinement, seemed to exaggerate the influence of ideas, or their absence, as an explanation of economic and political events. Motivation is one of the primary interests of the historian, who cannot explain events without understanding the reasoning behind the people actually involved or connected with them. To deny its importance seems to imply that human action is somehow controlled by impersonal factors like economics or political philosophies, and this would lead on to a deterministic view, and a de-personification of history. Adelman argued the case for the analysis of motives behind MacDonald’s actions, suggesting that the second Labour Government’s failures had rather deeper roots in human psychology:

How are we to explain MacDonald’s conduct? It is probably true that, as his critics aver, he was a vain, ambitious and increasingly out of touch with rank-and-file sentiment  within the party, and this explains his inability to appreciate the depth of feeling over the ten per cent cut. But there is no real evidence … that MacDonald was either in sympathy with or had been planning to become leader of a ‘National Government’ before the events of August 1931 thrust the role upon him. For a generation after this crisis Ramsay MacDonald was branded as a traitor to the Labour movement, but most impartial historians now agree with the spirit of Bassett’s remark that ‘he was moved primarily by his sense of duty’, even though we need not accept his further implication that what was good for MacDonald was also  good for the Labour Party. What gave weight to MacDonald’s actions too was his belief that his leadership of the National Government would be temporary: as he stressed to his colleagues at that last fateful Cabinet meeting, it was to deal with an extraordinary crisis only, and, as had happened in 1918, he would return to the fold later on to lead a reunited party. 

For his Labour colleagues, as MacDonald himself seems to have accepted, the position was different: for them the primary issue was one of party loyalty and not the question of the unemployment cuts (over which the gap between the two groups was very narrow), or a vague ‘national interest’ over whose meaning no one could agree. After all, a majority of the Cabinet had supported all of the cuts, and even the minority must have accepted that they would in any case be imposed by the next Conservative/ Liberal government. For most Labour ministers the major question was, therefore, … how to avoid a major split within the party, and on this issue a majority preferred to resign together rather than follow the Prime Minister into the National Government and accept a major breach in the Cabinet and the party. 

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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The newly-returned National Government not only cut the dole by ten per cent but also introduced the means test. The photograph above shows a protest meeting developing spontaneously among the crowd of disappointed unemployed outside the St Pancras Labour Exchange in London. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unfortunate in the Thirties, whether by accident, intelligence or design, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. The dole had grown out of the old poor law system and the old unemployment benefit system when, back in 1921, it had proved inadequate to cope with the new scale of mass unemployment. The unemployment fund had had to thirty million pounds from the Treasury in order to finance ‘the dole’, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer it, which after 1931 enlarged itself to administer the means test. The unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his household, camping out in his front room and then adjusting his dole accordingly.

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There was not much The Labour Party could do to help the unemployed and defend them against the cruelties imposed by the means test since it had put itself out in the cold in 1931 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Outside Parliament, protests and demonstrations were mostly led by the Communist Party and the NUWM. Labour politicians polished up their propaganda and tried to formulate a clear alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’. For a time its leader was yet another Victorian figure who had been in MacDonald’s cabinet before the split. George Lansbury was a Christian Socialist of real integrity and piety. His line was that all would be well when we had complete Socialism and power as well as office. In the meantime, he encouraged his comrades to sing the ‘Red Flag’. John Strachey wrote Marxist books and articles and gave speeches in which he seemed to hover between Fascism and Communism. On the Left, the Independent Labour Party, a few revolutionary Socialists, retained their seats. The most notable and charismatic of these was James Maxton, with his fringe of black hair falling across his burning eyes and reaching his shoulders, looking as if he was ready at any moment to ‘Man the Barricades’. Another ILP MP, John McGovern, recalled his intervention in the King’s Speech following the 1931 Election:

I happened to be standing beside Lady Astor M.P. , and she said “McGovern, this is a wonderful scene. This is what makes Old England such a great nation.” I replied, “But there are two Englands …” (As the King finished his speech) I called out, “What about the restoration of the cuts in unemployment allowances and the end of the Means Test?!” … 

The return of the National Government led to the Social Service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct State intervention. The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the Central Government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed (but that such work could) more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National funds. The role of the National Council for Social Service as the main agent in this was soon established by its patron, the Prince of Wales. In political, social and economic terms, the year 1931 marked the end of the Victorian régime which had given Britain prosperity. Changed conditions forced it to accept some degree of economic nationalism, and free trade of the nineteenth-century form had departed for good. The corporate effort of total war had led, eventually, to a greater acceptance of the need to seek collectivist solutions to modern problems, like the onset of mass unemployment. Capital came more under state control and direction because it had to seek the support of the State more often. In addition, there was a collectivist stimulus to clearer thinking and Planning. This was to bear greater fruit later in the decade. It was no longer simply a matter of ameliorating the effects and defects of industrialisation, but of transforming industrialism itself.

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

Yet the phrase, ‘the new socialism’ remained a misnomer. Collectivist methods were used, not because they were deduced from a particular creed, but because they happened to meet a particular need. In accordance with its long-held secular practice, Britain and its people remained largely uninterested in political theory, accepting change when there was a compelling case for it, supported by clear evidence. Above all, the English working-class remained deeply patriotic, as did the Scots and the Welsh. In 1937, a Nottinghamshire coal miner recalled his interaction with a Socialist speaker earlier in the decade and how his admiration had turned to annoyance when the speaker had turned to this subject:

“What is this England you are supposed to love? It is only a tiny portion of the earth’s surface.  Why should you be expected to love it, or be prepared to die for it, any more than you would for Russia, China or Greenland?”

I was thunderstruck. “Because it’s England!” I yelled out in a fury.

Didn’t he know that most of the happiness that ever I had came from this love of England that he spoke so contemptuously about? Didn’t they know that in the early winter mornings when the frost glittered on the half frozen fields and the air was so clear and so sharp that it hurt one’s nostrils, or in the hot summer afternoons when the forest of Sherwood was quiet under the heavy heat except for the popping of the bursting broom-pods – that England spoke to you? How she told you the wonderful stories of famous men who fought and ruled and died because of their love for her. Of the simple men who toiled, ploughed, reaped, loved every handful of her brown soil and died still loving her.   

In political terms, then, what was this England, and this Britain? In the Twenties, it was more of a changing landscape than it had ever been. Urgent facts had played havoc with party creeds. At no time previously or since, at least until recently, had the party interest sunk so low. That was due to the fact that British democracy had become essentially plebiscitary since that advent of the universal franchise in 1928. The 1929 ‘flapper election’ was the first to become a real scramble for votes and gamble for votes in the first-past-the-post system, compared with the well-planned binary contests which had previously taken place, leading to the turn-taking between the Conservatives and Liberals. The ‘arrival’ of Labour was one of the disruptive factors in this, but perhaps the major factor was the fact that in a crisis like war or national bankruptcy the ordinary party business meant little. The King’s view that a national emergency should be faced by a united front, which was supported by his ministers and confirmed by the people in the 1931 Election, had proved to be correct. As George Orwell was later to observe, patriotism was a far more potent popular force than socialism could ever become in Britain. The Labour Party has always done best when it has demonstrated its understanding of what appeared to be a ‘natural’ force, and worst when the party’s leadership show contempt for it.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 of England, 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Posted December 31, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Austerity, Austria, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Germany, History, Humanism, Jews, Labour Party, manufacturing, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Patriotism, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; Part Two, 1921-29.   Leave a comment

The Decline of the Liberals & Break-up of the Coalition:

002By the end of 1922, the Liberal Party had been relegated to the position of a minor party. Despite the promises of David Lloyd George (right) to provide ‘homes fit for heroes to live in’, it had been slow to develop the effective policies needed for dealing with the economic and social problems created by the First World War; promises based on moralistic liberal ideals were not enough. But there were many among their Coalition partners, the Conservatives, who were more concerned to keep the threat from Labour at bay than to jettison Lloyd George as their popular and charismatic Prime Minister.

The policies of the Coalition government, the alleged sale of honours by Lloyd George, the Irish treaties of 1920 and 1921, the failures of the international conferences at Cannes and Genoa, and the Chanak incident of 1922 exacerbated the withdrawal of backbench Conservative support for the Coalition Government. That dissatisfaction came to a head for the Tories in October 1922 when Austen Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin argued the cases for and against continuing the Coalition. Baldwin’s victory and the fall of the Coalition government led to Lloyd George and his Liberals being without positive programmes. The disastrous 1922 election was followed by a further fusion between the two wings of the Liberal Party and they revived in the 1923 General Election. But this was a short-lived triumph and in the 1924 election, the Liberals slumped to forty MPs, with less than eighteen per cent of the total vote. After this, the Liberals were a spent force in British politics.

At the famous meeting of ‘back-bench’ Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922, Chamberlain debated with Stanley Baldwin the future direction of their party in the following terms:

The real issue is not between Liberals and Conservatives. It is not between the old Liberal policy and the old Conservative policy. It is between those who stand for individual freedom and those who are for the socialisation of the State; those who stand for free industry and those who stand for nationalisation, with all its controls and inefficiencies. 

Stanley Baldwin, acknowledging that Lloyd George was a dynamic force, a remarkable personality, but one which had already smashed the PM’s own party to pieces, and would go on to do the same to the Tory Party if they let it. Baldwin’s victory over Chamberlain and the fall of the Coalition left Lloyd George and his Liberals without partners and without positive programmes of their own. Lloyd George had become an electoral liability both the Conservatives and, as it soon turned out, even the Liberals could do without.

In the British political and electoral system, there was no place for two parties of the Right or two parties of the Left. This was the Liberal dilemma. By 1924, the Liberal-Conservative see-saw had been replaced by a fast-spinning roundabout of alternate governments of the Labour and Conservative parties on which there was little opportunity for the Liberals to jump on board. To change the metaphor completely, they now found themselves caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. Where, then, did the Liberal support go? Liberal ideals were no longer as relevant to the twentieth century as they had been in Victorian and Edwardian times. In fact, both the Labour and Conservative parties benefited from the Liberal decline. Given that Conservative-led governments dominated Britain for all but three years of the 1918-39 period, the Liberal decline perhaps helped the Right rather than the Left. Besides which, the logic of the ‘adversarial’ British political system favoured a dominant two-party system rather than a multi-party governmental structure. Yet even the emergence of a working-class party with an overtly Socialist platform could not alter the fundamentals of a parliamentary politics based on the twin pillars of finding consensus and supporting capitalism. Despite his party’s commitment to Socialism, Ramsay MacDonald accepted the logic of this situation.

History has not been kind to the memories of either Stanley Baldwin or Ramsay MacDonald who dominated politics between 1922 and 1937. The first is still seen as the Prime Minister who thwarted both the General Strike and the rule of Edward VIII. The latter is seen, especially in his own party, as the great betrayer who chose to form a National Government in 1931, resulting in the split in that party. Here, I am concerned with the causes of that split and the motives for MacDonald’s actions. A further article will concern itself with the consequences of those actions and the split resulting in Labour’s biggest electoral disaster to date in 1935. In his book, published in 1968, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935, T. Wilson has pointed out the need for historians to take a long view of Liberal decline, going back to the 1880s and as far forward as 1945. In particular, he points to the fact that, in the three decades following 1914, the Conservatives held office almost continuously, with only two minor interruptions by Labour minority governments. In part, he suggested, this was the consequence in the overall decline of ‘the left’ in general, by which he seems to have meant the ‘left-liberals’ rather than simply the Socialists:

The left parties suffered from the loss of buoyancy and self-confidence which followed from Britain’s decline as a world power and the experiences of the First World War, as well as from the twin phenomena of economic growth and economic crisis which ran parallel after 1914. The resultant urge to play safe proved largely to the advantage of the Conservatives. So did the decline in ‘idealism’. … Before 1914 the Liberal and Labour parties so managed their electoral affairs that between them they derived the maximum advantage from votes cast against the Conservatives. After 1914 this became impossible. During the First World War Labour became convinced – and the decrepit state of Liberalism even by 1918 deemed to justify this conviction – that the Liberal Party would soon be extinguished altogether and that Labour would appropriate its entire following. … By concentrating on destroying the Liberals, Labour was ensuring its own victory “in the long run”, even though in the short run the Conservatives benefited. … 

Certainly, from 1918 to 1939 British politics was dominated by the Conservative Party. Either as a dominant member of a Coalition or National government or as a majority government, the Conservative Party retained hegemony over the system.

Structural Decline – The State of the ‘Staple’ Industries:

The problems which British politicians faced in the inter-war period were primarily of an economic nature. British industry was structurally weak and uncompetitive. It was therefore not surprising that two areas were of particular concern to politicians: first, the state of the staple industry, especially coal with its immense workforce; and secondly, the question of unemployment benefits and allowances.

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Above: A boy working underground with his pity pony. In 1921, the school-leaving age was fourteen, though many left in the spring before their fourteenth birthday and boys were legally allowed to work underground in mines at this age, entering the most dangerous industrial occupation in the country.

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Pictures can create an impression of mining life but they cannot convey the horrific danger of the work, and even the statistics elude the experience. Every five hours a miner was killed and every ten minutes five more were maimed. Every working day, 850 suffered some kind of serious injury. In the three years, 1922-24, nearly six hundred thousand were injured badly enough to be off work for seven days or more. No records were kept of those of work for fewer than seven days. Combined with work that was physically destructive over a longer period, producing diseases such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis were working conditions that are virtually indescribable and company-owned housing that was some of the worst in Britain. The reward for the daily risk to health and life varied from eight to ten shillings and ninepence a day according to the ‘district’ from eight shillings and fivepence a day in South Staffordshire to ten shillings and ninepence in South Wales. That was the wage the owners insisted on cutting and the toil they insisted on lengthening. The mine-owners were joined together in a powerful employers’ organisation known as the Mining Association. They represented owners like Lord Londonderry, the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Gainford, men whose interests extended to banking and press proprietorship. They also spoke for big landowners like the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Bate who drew royalties on every shovelful of coal hacked from beneath their lands, amounting to more than a hundred thousand pounds a year.

In 1915, the MFGB had formed a ‘Triple Industrial Alliance’ with the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Workers’ Federation. Its joint executive could order combined action to defend any of the three unions involved in a dispute. However, the Alliance ended on 15 April 1921 which became known as ‘Black Friday’. The NUR, the Transport Workers’ Federation, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman called off their strike, leaving the Miners to fight on. All along the Miners had said they were prepared to make a temporary arrangement about wages, provided that the principle of a National Wages Board was conceded. On the eve of ‘Black Friday’, the Miners’ leader, Frank Hodges suggested that they would be prepared to accept a temporary wage arrangement, provided it did not prejudice the ultimate decision about the NWB, thus postponing the question of the Board until after the negotiations. It was this adjustment that stopped the strike and ended the Alliance. The Daily Herald, very much the ‘mouthpiece’ for Labour, reported the following morning:

Yesterday was the heaviest defeat that has befallen the Labour Movement within the memory of man.

It is no use trying to minimise it. It is no use trying to pretend it is other than it is.We on this paper have said throughout that if the organised workers would stand together they would win. They have not stood together, and they have been broken. It is no use for anyone to criticise anyone else or to pretend that he himself would have done better than those have done who have borne the heaviest responsibility. …

The owners and the Government have delivered a smashing frontal attack upon the workers’ standard of life. They have resolved that the workers shall starve, and the workers have not been sufficiently united to stand up to that attack.

The Triple Alliance, the Trades Union Congress, the General Staff, have all failed to function. We must start afresh  and get a machine that will function.

… We may be beaten temporarily; it will be our own fault if we are not very soon victorious. Sectionalism is the waekness of the movement. It must be given up. Everybody must come back to fight undiscouraged, unhumiliated, more determined than ever for self-sacrifice, for hard-work, and for solidarity. … We must concentrate on the Cause.

The thing we are fighting for is much too big to be beaten by Mr Lloyd George or by anything except betrayal in our own ranks and in our own hearts. 

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Already by 1922, forty-three per cent of Jarrow’s employable persons were out of work, whilst forty-seven per cent in Brynmawr and sixty per cent in Hartlepool were in the same condition. By contrast with the unforgiving bitterness of class war across mainland Europe, however, social divisions in Britain were mitigated by four main ‘cultural’ factors; a common ‘heritage’; reverence for the monarchy; a common religion, albeit divided between Anglican, Nonconformist and Catholic denominations; an instinctive enjoyment of sport and a shared sense of humour. All four of these factors were evident in the class-based conflicts of 1919-26. In March 1922, the Daily News reported that an ex-soldier of the Royal Field Artillery was living with his wife and four children in London under a patchwork shack of tarpaulins, old army groundsheets and bits of tin and canvas. He told the reporter:

If they’d told in France that I should come back to this I wouldn’t have believed it. Sometimes I wished to God the Germans had knocked me out.

In the House of Commons in June 1923, the ILP MP James (‘Jimmy’) Maxwell used his ‘privileges’ to accuse the Baldwin government and industrialists of ‘murder’:

In the interests of economy they condemned hundreds of children to death, and I call it murder … It is a fearful thing for any man to have on his soul – a cold, callous, deliberate crime in order to save money. We are prepared to destroy children in the great interest of dividends. We put children out in the front of the firing line.

Baldwin & MacDonald arrive ‘centre-stage’:

In attempting to remedy the existing state of affairs, Baldwin set himself a dual-task. In the first place, he had to lead the Conservatives to some imaginative understanding of the situation which had called a Labour Party into being and to convince them that their survival depended on finding a better practical solution to the problems than Labour’s. Secondly, he sought to convince potential Labour voters that not all Conservatives were blood-sucking capitalists, that humanity and idealism were not the exclusive prerogatives of left-wing thinkers. For the cartoonists and the and the public at large, there was Baldwin’s carefully cultivated image of the bowler hat and the pipe, Sunday walks in the Worcestershire countryside which ended in the contemplation of his pigs; ‘Squire Baldwin’ appeared, according to William McElwee, to be simple, straightforward, homely and above all trustworthy. MacDonald had the same task in reverse. He had to convince the nation that Labour was a responsible party, perfectly competent to take over the reins of government, and resolved to achieve in its programme of reforms within the framework of the constitution. He had also to persuade Labour itself that it was in and through Parliament that social progress could best be achieved; that the existing constitutional structure was not designed to shore up capitalism and preserve personal privilege, but was available for any party to take hold of and will the means according to its declared ends, provided it could ensure a democratically elected majority.

Both Baldwin and MacDonald were enigmatic figures to contemporaries and still are today. On Baldwin, one contemporary commented in 1926 that …

If on the memorable afternoon of August 3, 1914, anyone, looking down on the crowded benches of the House of Commons, had sought to pick out the man who would be at the helm when the storm that was about to engulf Europe was over he would not have given a thought to the member for Bewdley. … He passed for a typical backbencher, who voted as he was expected to vote and went home to dinner. A plain, undemonstrative Englishman, prosperous and unambitious, with a pleasant, humorous face, bright and rather bubolic colouring, walking with a quick, long stride that suggested one accustomed to tramping much over ploughed fields with a gun under his arm, and smoking a pipe with unremitting enjoyment. …

McElwee considers their personality traits in his book, Britain’s Locust Years, in which he tries to indicate the immensity of the problem facing these problems, characterising it as years of plenty followed by years of shortage. He raises the important question of judgement and argues that the historian must reach a ‘truer perspective’ in appreciating that the problems facing the country in 1925 were very different from those which had to be confronted in 1935 and 1945. Yet the picture still emerges in the national mind of…

Baldwin personified by his pipe and pigs and MacDonald by his vanity, ambition and betrayal.

This popular picture, he suggests, fails to take into account the contribution each made to his own party. Both men could claim that during their periods in office they were compelled to act in ‘the national interest’. The events of 1926, in the case of Baldwin, and 1931, in the case of MacDonald, and their actions in them, could both be justified on these grounds alongside the judgements they made. Historians’ interpretations of these judgements must depend first on the available evidence and secondly on their analysis and treatment of this evidence-based on non-partisan criteria. Only then can they adduce true motives. As for the Liberals, the disastrous 1922 election was followed by a re-fusion between the two wings of the Liberal Party and they revived their fortunes somewhat in the 1923 General Election. But this was a short-lived recovery and in the 1924 election, they slumped to forty MPs, with only 17.6 per cent of the total vote. Their decline after 1924 can be seen in the electoral statistics below:

Table I: General Election Results, 1918-1929.

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Table II: Liberals and the General Elections, 1918-1929.

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Writing in Certain People of Importance in 1926, A. G. Gardiner suggested that the emergence of Mr Baldwin would furnish the historian with an attractive theme. … The ‘Diehards’, following the fateful Carlton Club Meeting, at which he effectively broke up the Coalition, felt that at last, they had found a hero. But in November 1923 Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government fell. In 1923, in the middle of the election campaign, a Cabinet colleague was asked to explain the true inwardness of his leader’s sudden and inexplicable plunge into Protection, he replied: Baldwin turned the tap on and then found that he could not turn it off. Gardiner commented by extending this metaphor:

He is always turning taps on and then found that he does not know how to stop them. And when the bath overflows outside, lights his pipe, and rejoices that he has such a fine head of water on his premises. …

The Tory’s revival of ‘Protectionism’ was an attempt to stem the tide of support for Labour by protecting the new engineering jobs which were growing rapidly in the new industrial areas of the Midlands, which were meeting the demand for new electrical goods in the home market. My own grandparents, a miner and silk-weaver campaigning for Labour from the front room of their new semi-detached house in Coventry, which served as the Party’s constituency office, used to sing the following campaign song decades later, to the tune of ‘Men of Harlech’:

Voters all of Aberavon!

Wisdom show in this election,

Don’t be misled by Protection,

Ramsay is yer man.

Ramsay, Ramsay! Shout it!

Don’t be shy about it!

On then comrades, on to glory!

It shall be told in song and story,

How we beat both Lib and Tory!

Ramsay is yer man!

In the following month’s general election (the full results of which are shown in the statistics in Table I above), the Labour Party won 191 seats to the Conservatives’ 258 and the Liberals’ 158; Margaret Bondfield was elected in Northampton with a majority of 4,306 over her Conservative opponent. She had been elected to the TUC Council in 1918 and became its chairman in 1923, shortly before she was first elected to parliament.  In an outburst of local celebration her supporters, whom she described as “nearly crazy with joy”, paraded her around the town in a charabanc. She was one of the first three women—Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson (pictured in the group photo below) were the others—to be elected as Labour MPs. With no party in possession of a parliamentary majority, the make-up of the next government was in doubt for some weeks until Parliament returned after the Christmas ‘recess’.

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In the short-lived minority Labour government of 1924, Margaret Bondfield, seen above as Chairman of the TUC, served as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Labour. 

The First Labour Government:

The Liberal Party’s decision not to enter a coalition with the Conservatives, and Baldwin’s unwillingness to govern without a majority, led to Ramsay MacDonald’s first minority Labour government which took office in January 1924.

The Women MPs elected to Parliament in 1923 (three were Labour)

Working-class expectations of the First Labour government were soaring high, despite its ‘absolute’ minority status and the lack of experience of its cabinet ministers. Beatrice Webb wrote in her diaries (1924-32) for 8th January:

I had hoped to have the time and the brains to give some account of the birth of the Labour Cabinet. There was a pre-natal scene – the Embryo Cabinet – in JRM’s room on Monday afternoon immediately after the defeat of the Government when the whole of the prospective Ministers were summoned to meet the future PM (who) … did not arrive until half an hour after the time – so they all chatted and introduced themselves to each other. … On Tuesday (in the first week of January), JRM submitted to the King the twenty members of the Cabinet and there was a formal meeting at 10 Downing Street that afternoon of the Ministers designate. Haldane gave useful advice about procedure: Wheatley and Tom Shaw orated somewhat, but for the most part the members were silent, and what remarks were made were businesslike. The consultation concerned the PM’s statement to Parliament. …

On Wednesday the twenty Ministers designate, in their best suits … went to Buckingham Palace to be sworn in; having been previously drilled by Hankey. Four of them came back to our weekly MP’s lunch to to meet the Swedish Minister – a great pal of ours. Uncle Arthur (Henderson) was bursting with childish joy over his H. O. seals in the red leather box which he handed round the company; Sidney was chuckling over a hitch in the solemn ceremony in which he had been right and Hankey wrong; they were all laughing over Wheatley – the revolutionary – going down on both knees and actually kissing the King’s hand; and C. P. Trevelyan was remarking that the King seemed quite incapable of saying two words to his new ministers: ‘he went through the ceremony like an automation!’

J. R. Clynes, the ex-mill-hand, Minister in the Labour Government, recalled their sense of being ‘out of place’ at the Palace:

As we stood waiting for His Majesty, amid the gold and crimson of the Palace, I could not help marvelling at the strange turn of Fortune’s wheel, which had brought MacDonald, the starveling clerk, Thomas the engine-driver, Henderson the foundry labourer and Clynes, the mill-hand to the pinnacle.

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The pictures and captions above and elsewhere in this article are taken from ‘These Tremendous Years, 1918-38’, published c.1939, a ‘picture-post’ -style publication. What is interesting about this report is its references to the King’s attitude, which contrasts with that reported by Beatrice Webb, and to the Labour Ministers as ‘the Socialists’.

According to Lansbury’s biographer, Margaret Bondfield turned down the offer of a cabinet post; instead, she became parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour, Tom Shaw. This appointment meant that she had to give up the TUC Council chair; her decision to do so, immediately after becoming the first woman to achieve this honour, generated some criticism from other trade unionists. She later described her first months in government as “a strange adventure”. The difficulties of the economic situation would have created problems for the most experienced of governments, and the fledgeling Labour administration was quickly in difficulties. Bondfield spent much of her time abroad; in the autumn she travelled to Canada as the head of a delegation examining the problems of British immigrants, especially as related to the welfare of young children. When she returned to Britain in early October 1924, she found her government already in its final throes. On 8 October MacDonald resigned after losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons. Labour’s chances of victory in the ensuing general election were fatally compromised by the controversy surrounding the so-called Zinoviev letter, a missive purportedly sent by Grigory Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, which called on Britain’s Socialists to prepare for violent revolution:

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE, THIRD COMMUNIST

INTERNATIONAL PRESIDIUM.

MOSCOW

September 15th 1924

To the Central Committee, British Communist Party.

DEAR COMRADES,

The time is approaching for the Parliament of England to consider the Treaty concluded between the Governments of Great Britain and the SSSR for the purpose of ratification. The fierce campaign raised by the British bourgeoisie around the question shows that the majority of the same … (is) against the Treaty. 

It is indispensible to stir up the masses of the British proletariat, to bring into movement the army of unemployed proletarians. … It is imperative that the Labour Party sympathising with the Treaty should bring increased pressure to bear upon the Government and Parliament any circles in favour of ratification …

… A settlement of relations between the two countries will assist in the revolutionising of the international and British Proletariat not less than a successful rising in any of the working districts of England, as the establishment of close contact between the British and Russian proletariat, … will make it possible for us to extend and develop the propaganda and ideals of Leninism in England and the Colonies. …

From your last report it is evident that agitation propaganda in the Army is weak, in the Navy a very little better … it would be desirable to have cells in all the units of troops, particularly among those those quartered in the large centres of the Country, and also among factories working on munitions and at military store depots. …

With Communist greetings,

ZINOVIEV

President of the Presidium of the I.K.K.I.

McMANUS

Member of the Presidium

KUUSINEN

Secretary

Pictured right: The Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, depicted in a hostile Punch cartoon. The luggage label, marked “Petrograd”, links him to Russia and communism.

The letter, published four days before polling day, generated a “Red Scare” that led to a significant swing of voters to the right, ensuring a massive Tory victory (Table I).

Margaret Bondfield lost her seat in Northampton by 971 votes. The scare demonstrated the vulnerability of the Labour Party to accusations of Communist influence and infiltration.

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The Conservatives & the Coal Crisis – Class War?

Baldwin (pictured on the left above) and his Tories were duly returned to power, including Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was Churchill’s decision in 1925 to return Britain to the Gold Standard, abandoned in 1914, together with his hard-line anti-unionism displayed during the General Strike, for which his second period in office is best remembered. The decision was a monetary disaster that hit the lowest paid hardest since it devalued wages dramatically. Despite being flatly warned by the Cambridge economist Hubert Henderson that a return to gold… cannot be achieved without terrible risk of renewed trade depression and serious aggravation and of unemployment, it was actually Baldwin who told Churchill that it was the Government’s decision to do so. Churchill decided to go along with Baldwin and the Bank of England, which restored its authority over the treasury by the change. The effect of the return to the Gold Standard in 1926, as predicted by Keynes and other economists, was to make the goods and services of the most labour-intensive industries even less competitive in export markets. Prices and the numbers out of work shot up, and wages fell. In the worst-affected industries, like coal-mining and shipbuilding, unemployment was already approaching thirty per cent. In some places in the North, it reached nearly half the insured workforce. In the picture on the right above, miners are anxiously reading the news about the ‘Coal Crisis’.

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Beatrice Webb first met the ‘Billy Sunday’ of the Labour Movement, as Cook was nicknamed, with George Lansbury. He was the son of a soldier, born and brought up in the barracks, then a farm-boy in Somerset when he migrated, like many others, to the booming South Wales coalfield before the First World War, a fact which was continually referred to by the Welsh-speaking Liberal élite in the Social Service movement. He had, however, passed through a fervent religious stage at the time of the great Welsh Revival, which he came out of by coming under the influence of the ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and Noah Ablett, whom he helped to write The Miners’ Next Step, a Syndicalist programme for workers’ control of the coal industry, published in 1912. Graduating into Trade Union politics as a conscientious objector and avowed admirer of Lenin’s, he retained the look of the West country agricultural labour, with china-blue eyes and lanky yellow hair, rather than that of the ‘old Welsh collier’ so admired by the Liberals. For Webb, however, Cook was altogether a man you watch with a certain curiosity, though to her husband, Sidney, who was on the Labour Party Executive, he was rude and unpleasing in manner. However, Beatrice also judged that…

It is clear that he has no intellect and not much intelligence … an inspired idiot, drunk with his own words, dominated by his own slogans. I doubt whether he knows what he is going to say or what he has just said. It is tragic to think that this inspired idiot, coupled with poor old Herbert Smith, with his senile obstinacy, are the dominating figures in so great and powerful an organisation as the Miners’ Federation.

Walter Citrine, the TUC General Secretary in 1926, had a similarly mixed view of Cook’s speaking abilities:

In speaking, whether in private or public, he never seemed to finish his sentences. His brain raced ahead of his words. He would start out to demonstrate something or other in a logical way … but almost immediately some thought came into his mind and he completely forgot all about (his main theme) and never returned to it. He was extremely emotional and even in private conversation I have seen tears in his eyes.

The mine owners’ response to the crisis, made worse by the fact that the German minefields were back in production, was to demand wage cuts and extensions to working hours. Worried about the real possibility of a general strike, based on the Triple Alliance between the miners, dockers and railwaymen, Baldwin bribed the owners with government subsidies to postpone action until a royal commission could report on the overall problems of the industry. However, when the Samuel Commission reported in March 1926, its first of seven recommendations was a cut in wages. The response of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, voiced by their militant national secretary, A. J. Cook, was to set out the miner’s case in emotive terms:

Our case is simple. We ask for safety and economic security. Today up and down the coalfields the miner and his family are faced with sheer starvation. He is desperate. He will not, he cannot stand present conditions much longer. He would be a traitor to his wife and children if he did. Until he is given safety in mines, adequate compensation, hours of labour that do not make him a mere coal-getting medium, and decent living conditions, there can be no peace in the British coalfields.

Lord Birkenhead said that he thought the miners’ leaders the stupidest men he had ever met until he met the mine owners. They proved him right by locking the miners out of the pits at midnight on 30 April. The Mining Association, strongly supported by Baldwin and Churchill, stated that the mines would be closed to all those who did not accept the new conditions from 2 May 1926. The message from the owners was clear; they refused to meet with the miners’ representatives and declared that they would never again submit to national agreements but would insist on district agreements to break the power and unity of the MFGB and force down the living standards of the miners to an even lower level. The smallest reduction would be imposed on mine labourers in Scotland, eightpence farthing a day, the largest on hewers in Durham, three shillings and eightpence a day. Cook responded by declaring:

We are going to be slaves no longer and our men will starve before they accept a reduction in wages.

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Above: Women and children queue outside the soup kitchen in Rotherham, Yorkshire, during the miners’ lock-out in 1926.

The Nine Days of the General Strike:

The following day, Saturday 1 May, the TUC special Conference of Executive Committees met in London and voted to call a General Strike in support of the miners by 3,653,527 votes to just under fifty thousand. As early as 26 February, the TUC had reiterated support for the miners, declaring there was to be no reduction in wages, no increase in working hours, and no interference with the principle of national agreements. In the face of the impending lockout, the special Conference had begun meeting at Farringdon Street on 29 April and continued in session until 1 May. At this conference, in a committed and passionate speech, Bevin said of the decision to strike in support of the miners …

… if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves. 

The TUC Memorandum called for the following trades to cease work as an when required by the General Council:

Transport, … Printing Trades including the Press, … Productive Industries, Iron and Steel, Metal, and Heavy Chemical, … Building Trade, … Electricity and Gas,  … Sanitary Services, … but … With regard to hospitals, clinics, convalescent homes, sanatoria, infant welfare centres, maternity homes, nursing homes, schools … affiliated Unions (were) to take every opportunity to ensure that food, milk, medical and surgical supplies shall be efficiently provided. Also, there was to be no interference in regard to … the distribution of milk and food to the whole of the population.

Telegrams were sent out on 3 May and on the 4th more than three million workers came out on strike. The General Council issued a further statement that evening, again placing the responsibility for the ‘national crisis’ on the shoulders of the Government. It went on to try to reassure the general population of its good intentions in calling the strike:

With the people the trade unions have no quarrel. On the contrary, the unions are fighting to maintain the standard of life of the great mass of people. 

The trade unions have not entered upon this struggle without counting the cost. They are assured that the trade unionists of the country, realising the justice of the cause they are called upon to support, will stand loyally by their elected leaders until the victory and an honourable peace has been won.

The need now is for loyalty, steadfastness and unity.

The General Council of the Trade Union Congress appeals to the workers to follow the instructions that have been issued by their union leaders.

Let none be disturbed by rumours or driven by panic to betray the cause.

Violence and disorder must be everywhere avoided no matter what the cause.

Stand firm and we shall win.

On the 4th, The Daily Herald published the following editorial backing the Strike:

The miners are locked out to enforce reductions of wages and an increase in hours. The Government stands behind the mineowners. It has rebuffed the Trade Union Movement’s every effort to pave the way to an honourable peace.

The renewed conversations begun on Saturday were ended abruptly in the early hours of yesterday morning, with an ultimatum from the Cabinet. Despite this, the whole Labour Movement, including the miners’ leaders, continued its efforts yesterday.

But unless a last minute change of front by the Government takes place during the night the country will today be forced, owing to the action of the Government, into an industrial struggle bigger than this country has yet seen.

In the Commons Mr Baldwin showed no sign of any receding from his attitude that negotiations could not be entered into if the General Strike order stood and unless reductions were accepted before negotiations opened.

In reply Mr J. H. Thomas declared that the responsibility for the deadlock lay with the Government and the owners, and that the Labour Movement was bound in honour to support the miners in the attacks on their standard of life.

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In the following eight days, it was left to local trades unionists to form Councils of Action to control the movement of goods, disseminate information to counter government propaganda, to arrange strike payments and to organise demonstrations and activities in support of the strike. The scene in the photo above gives a strong impression of the life of a northern mining community during the strike, in which a local agitator harangues his audience, men and children in clogs, with flat caps and pigeon baskets. Most of the photographs of 1926 taken by trades unionists and Labour activists do not show the strike itself but reveal aspects of the long lone fight of the miners to survive the lock-out. We know from the written and oral sources that the nine days in May were sunny and warm across much of the country, perfect for outside communal activities. The Cardiff Strike Committee issued the following advice:

Keep smiling! Refuse to be provoked. Get into your garden. Look after the wife and kiddies. If you have not got a garden, get into the country, the parks and the playgrounds.

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At Methil, in Scotland, the trades unionists reacted to the call in a highly organised manner, the Trades and Labour Council forming itself into a Council of Action with sub-committees for food and transport, information and propaganda and mobilising three cars, one hundred motorcycles and countless bicycles for its courier service. Speakers were sent out in threes, a miner, a railwayman and a docker to emphasise the spirit of unity with the miners. Later in the strike, the Council of Action added an entertainments committee and, more seriously, a Workers’ Defence Corps after some savage baton charges by the police upon the pickets. The snapshots are from Methil, one showing miners and their families waiting to hear speeches from local leaders, one man holding a bugle used to summon people from their homes. The lower photo shows three pickets arrested during disturbances at Muiredge. Deploying a sense of humour reminiscent of that of the class-conscious ‘Tommies’ in the trenches, the Kensington strike bulletin greeted Sir John Simon’s pronouncement on the legality of the Strike with the following sardonic comment:

Sir John Simon says the General Strike is illegal under an Act passed by William the Conqueror  in 1066. All strikers are liable to be interned in Wormwood Scrubs. The three million strikers are advised to keep in hiding, preferably in the park behind Bangor Street, where they will not be discovered.

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Throughout the country, those called upon by the TUC to stop work did so with enthusiasm and solidarity. The photograph of trades unionists marching through ‘well-heeled’ Leamington Spa (above) is typical of thousands of similar popular demonstrations of solidarity that took place throughout Britain. Though the establishment in general and Winston Churchill, in particular, feared revolution, the march of building workers and railwaymen has the air of a nineteenth-century trade union procession, like those led by Joseph Arch in the surrounding Warwickshire countryside, the carpenters and joiners parading examples of their work, window sashes and door frames, through the streets on the back of a horse-drawn wagon. The figure in the foreground, marked with an x, is E Horley, a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. It was a scene repeated in a thousand towns as meetings were held, trade union news sheets were printed daily, and Councils of Action controlled the movement of supplies, organised pickets (Bolton organised 2,280 pickets in two days) and provided entertainment and speakers.

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Government plans to cope with the strike of the ‘Triple Alliance’ or for a general strike had originated in 1919. The TUC seemed unaware of the government plans to distribute supplies by road though Lloyd George claimed that Ramsay MacDonald was aware of it and even prepared to make use of it during 1924. The organisation had evolved steadily during a period of continued industrial arrest and was accelerated after ‘Red Friday’ in 1925 so that the government was not only ready to take on the miners but was looking forward to dealing the unions a massive blow. Private support for a strikebreaking force came from a body calling itself the ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) under ‘top brass’ military leadership. The professional classes hastened to enrol, especially those with military commissions and experience, alongside industrialists.

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Whilst the popular image of the Strike is one of the ‘Oxbridge’ undergraduates driving buses, the reality was that most of the strike-breakers were as working-class as the strikers. Churchill, however, mobilised resources as if he were fighting a war. Troops delivered food supplies; he set up the British Gazette and ran it as a government propaganda sheet (above), with more soldiers guarding the printing presses.

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The armed forces were strategically stationed, armoured cars and tanks brought out for guard and escort duties. The Riot Act was read to the troops and even the artillerymen were given bayonet drill. Both food deliveries and Gazette deliveries were sometimes accompanied by tanks. Attempts to press Lord Reith’s BBC, which had begun broadcasting in 1922, to put out government bulletins, were defiantly resisted, a turning point in the fight for the corporation’s political independence.

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The photograph above shows troops carrying an ammunition box into their temporary quarters at the Tower of London, where the contents of London’s gunshops were also stored during the strike.

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Since 1925, the number of special constables had been increased from 98,000 to 226,000 and a special reserve was also created. This numbered fifty thousand during the strike by ‘reliable’ volunteers from the universities, the professions and by retired army officers who happily donned the blue and white armband over cricket sweaters and drew their helmets from the government stores. The photo above shows a group of swaggering polo-playing ex-officers wielding yard-long clubs and flourishing whips replete with jodhpurs. They cantered around Hyde Park in military formation. The class divisions were clearly drawn and while for the most part, the volunteers saw it as answering a patriotic call, some talked of ‘teaching the blighters a lesson’.

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In a strike remarkable for a lack of violence, given all the ingredients for near civil war, it was the specials who were involved in some of the most brutal incidents during the nine days. The most dramatic incident was the semi-accidental derailment of The Flying Scotsman by a group of miners from Cramlington Lodge, but their four-hundred-yard warning enabled the engine to slow to twenty m.p.h. before it toppled off the section where they had removed a rail. Consequently, no-one was hurt, but a police investigation led to one of the miners turning King’s Evidence and his nine ‘comrades’ were arrested and given sentences of four, six and eight year’s penal servitude. On the other side, mounted specials supported the Black and Tans in an unprovoked attack on a mixed crowd in Lewes Road, Brighton, while at Bridgeton attacks by the specials on unoffending citizens led to an official protest by the Glasgow Town Council Labour Group. It was also the specials who took part in raids on trade union offices and arrested workers for selling strike bulletins; for the miners, it was a fight for survival, for the university students and their middle-aged fathers in search of glory, it was all ‘jolly good fun’.

At the height of the strike, with messages of support pouring into the TUC, the number of strikers growing and spirits high, the strike was suddenly brought to an end on 12 May. At first, trade union officials announced it as a victory, for example at a mass meeting at Gravesend. With the strike solid and growing daily and trades unions in control of many areas, its ending was similarly interpreted in hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the country. As the truth slowly became known, the news was received with shock and disbelief. The strike had lasted just nine days before it was called off unconditionally by the TUC General Council. The coalowners and the Conservatives had no doubt at all that it was an unconditional surrender. Certainly, J. H. Thomas’ announcement of the end of the strike seemed to one group of railwaymen listening to the ‘wireless’ to confirm this:

We heard Jimmy Thomas almost crying as he announced the terms of what we thought were surrender, and we went back with our tails between our legs to see what the bosses were going to do with us.

The next day The Daily Mail headline was ‘surrender of the revolutionaries’ and Churchill’s British Gazette led with ‘Surrender received by Premier’. The TUC had agreed to the compromise put forward by the Samuel Commission, but the embittered MFGB leadership did not and the lock-out continued for seven months (see the photo below, titled End of the Strike). The miners refused to accept the cut in wages and increase in hours demanded by the owners and the government.

The reasoning behind this decision has been argued over ever since, but, following the backlash over the ‘Zinoviev Letter’, the General Strike of 1926 demonstrated the unwillingness of even radical trade unionists to push the system too far and be seen to be acting coercively and unconstitutionally. Additionally, when the showdown came in 1926 it was not really, as The Times had dramatised it in September 1919, a fight to the finish, because industrial union power was already shifting to other sections of the economy.

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From Retribution & Recrimination to ‘Recovery’ & Reconciliation, 1926-29:

After the Strike was called off, the bitter polarisation of the classes remained. There are few photographs which record the misery of victimisation that followed the ending of the strike. Courageous men in lonely country districts who had struck in twos and threes were easy victims for retribution. The railway companies were the first to act we, turning away railwaymen when they reported for work. Men with decades of loyal service were demoted, moved to posts far from home, or simply not re-engaged. The railwayman quoted above was one of these victims:

I was told within a couple of days that I had been dismissed the service – a very unusual thing, and I think that very few station masters  in the Kingdom can say that they had had the sack, but that was the case with me, and I know at least two more who had the same experience. 

Of those who formed the TUC deputation to Baldwin, only Ernest Bevin sought an assurance against retribution. None was given, so speaking at the end of the strike, he prophesied that thousands would be victimised as a result of this day’s work. The NUR was forced to sign a humiliating document that included the words the trade unions admit that in calling the strike they committed a wrongful act. The coalowners’ final reckoning came with the slow return to work at the end of the year. They prepared blacklists, excluding ‘militants’ from their pits, and gave them to the police at the pitheads. Some men never returned to work until 1939, following Britain’s declaration of war. Vengeful employers felt justified in these actions by the blessings they had received from the pulpits of Christian leaders, including Cardinal Bourne, the Roman Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Westminster, preaching in Westminster Cathedral on 9th May:

There is no moral justification  for a General Strike of this character. It is therefore a sin against the obedience which we owe to God. … All are bound to uphold and assist the Government, which is the lawfully-constituted authority of the country and represents therefore, in its own appointed sphere, the authority of God himself.

In a period when these issues of morality, legitimacy, and constitutionalism carried great weight, and church-going was still significant among all classes, it is not wholly surprising that the TUC leaders were wary of over-reaching their power in mid-twenties’ Britain. We also need to recall that the Labour Party had a very strong tradition of pacifism, and although outbreaks of violence against people or property were rare events during the coal stoppage and the General Strike, at the time the strike was called off there would have been natural concerns among the Labour leaders about their ability to control the more militant socialists and communists active among the rank and file trades unionists. George Lansbury (pictured below) addressed some of these concerns in the context of his Christian Socialism:

One Whose life I revere and Who, I believe, is the greatest Figure in history, has put it on record: “Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword” … If mine was the only voice in this Conference, I would say in the name of the faith I hold, the belief I have that God intended us to live peaceably and quietly with one another, if some people do not allow us to do so, I am ready to stand as the early Christians did, and say, “This is our faith, this is where we stand and, if necessary, this is where we will die.”

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On the other hand, the Fabian Socialist, Beatrice Webb was scathing in her assessment of what she believed the General Strike had revealed about the lack of support for revolutionary socialism among British workers:

The government has gained immense prestige in the world and the British Labour movement has made itself ridiculous. A strike which opens with a football match  between police and strikers and ends nine days later with densely-packed reconciliation services at all the chapels and churches of Great Britain attended by the strikers and their families, will make the continental Socialists blaspheme. Without a shot fired or a life lost … the General Strike of 1926 has by its absurdity made the Black Friday of 1921 seem to be a red letter day of common sense. Let me add that the failure of the General Strike shows what a ‘sane’ people the British are. If only our revolutionaries would realise the hopelessness of their attempt to turn the British workman into a Red Russian …The British are hopelessly good-natured and common-sensical – to which the British workman adds pigheadedness, jealousy and stupidity. … We are all of us just good-natured stupid folk.

The Conservative government revelled in the defeat of the strike and turned to the slow crushing of the miners. They sent an official note of protest to the Soviet government, determined to stop the collection of relief money by Russian trade unionists. Neville Chamberlain instructed the authorities to tighten up on relief payments which were already at a starvation figure of five shillings for a wife and two shillings for each child. The men were precluded from Poor Relief by a law originating in 1898 in which the coalowners had brought a court action against the Guardians of Merthyr Tydfil for giving miners outdoor relief during the miners’ strike of that year. The government was now quick to insist that work was available, albeit for longer hours and less pay than that those set out in the previous agreements between the mine-owners and the mineworkers, and then insisted that the law concerning relief should be vigorously applied, even to the pit boys, aged fourteen to sixteen, who were not allowed to join a trade union. When, after months of hunger and deprivation, the miners organised a fund-raising mission to the United States, Baldwin wrote a vindictive letter to the US authorities stating that there was no dire need in the coalfields. This was at a time when Will John, MP for Rhondda West, was telling the Board of Guardians that women were now carrying their children to the communal kitchens because the children had no shoes. As the plight of the miners grew worse, the govern In July, his government announced that a bill would be passed lengthening the working day in the mines.

Four million British subjects were thus put on the rack of hunger by a Cabinet of wealthy men. They even introduced a special new law, the Board of Guardians (Default) Bill, in an attempt to rule by hunger. Despite all these measures, the miners were able to exist for nearly seven months before being driven to accept the terms of the owners. This was a story of community struggle in the face of siege conditions. Aid for the miners came from the organised Labour and trade union movement, which raised tens of thousands of pounds. Russian trade unionists collected over a million pounds. Co-ops extended credit in the form of food vouchers, gave away free bread and made long-term loans. The funds of the Miners’ Federations and the MFGB proved hopelessly inadequate in supporting the ‘striking’ men.

Meanwhile, whilst the participants in round-table talks between the unions and management, convened by the chemical industrialist Sir Alfred Mond, were meant to reintroduce a spirit of goodwill into industrial relations, the Conservative government introduced a bill to prevent any future General Strike and attempted to sever the financial link between the unions and the Labour Party. This eventually became the 1927 Trade Disputes Act made it illegal for any strike to intend to coerce the government. It also became illegal for a worker in ‘essential employment’ to commit a breach of contract; in effect, this was a return to the old law of ‘master and servant’ which had been swept away by the Employers’ and Workmen’s Act of 1875.

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Unemployed miners getting coal from the Tredegar ‘patches’ in the late twenties.

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The memory of 1926 became seared into the culture and folklore of mining communities as epitomised in Idris Davies’ poem, Do you remember 1926? Certainly, it marked a fracture line in Labour history, as following the lock-out, many miners abandoned the industry and looked for work in the newer industries in the Midlands and South East of England. Hundreds of thousands joined the migrant stream out of the working-class communities of Wales, the North of England and central Scotland, often taking with them their cultural traditions and institutions (see the photo montage below).

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But whether they went into ‘exile’ or stayed at ‘home’, the miners were determined to use the memory of their defeat to fight back. W. P. Richardson of the Durham miners expressed their feelings:

The miners are on the bottom and have been compelled to accept dictated and unjust terms. The miners will rise again and will remember because they cannot forget. The victors of today will live to regret their unjust treatment of the miners.

Nevertheless, following its defeat at the hands of the people of Poplar, and in the spirit of class conciliation which followed the General Strike of 1926, both Conservative and Labour governments were naturally cautious in their interventions in the administration of unemployment benefit and poor relief. Although such interventions were subtle, and at times even reluctant, following on from the miners’ dispute, an alliance of the Baldwin Government, leading Civil Servants, together with advocates and adherents of the Social Service movement, had set into motion a cultural counter-revolution which was designed to re-establish their hegemony over industrial areas with large working-class populations. The wartime experience of directing labour resources, and production had given the Coalition ministers a sense of responsibility towards ex-servicemen and it had established several training centres for disabled veterans. The national Government also exercised a limited responsibility, through the Unemployment Grants Committee, together with local authorities, for public works through which the unemployed could be temporarily absorbed. Also, the wartime creation of the Ministry of Labour and a network of employment exchanges provided the means whereby a more adventurous policy could be pursued.

By the end of 1926, the training centres were turning their attention to the wider problem of unemployment, enabling the victims of industrial depression to acquire skills that would facilitate their re-entry into the labour market. Though this often meant resettlement in another area that was not the foremost purpose of the programme. In any case, the regional pattern of unemployment was only just beginning to emerge by the mid-twenties. The Director of the Birmingham Training Centre who went to Wales in 1926 to recruit members for his course was able to offer his audience very little, except lodgings at 18a week and one free meal a day. The weekly allowance of a trainee was just 23s, and training lasted six months. The real shift in Government policy came in 1927, with Neville Chamberlain invoking his powers as Minister for Health and Local Government to curb Poplarism, under the Bill he had introduced following the General Strike. Commissioners appointed by the Government replaced those local Boards of Guardians that were considered profligate in the administration of the Poor Law.

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The Lord Mayor’s fund for distressed miners report, published in ‘The Sphere’, 1929.

The Baldwin government’s second interventionist act was effected through the setting up of the Mansion House Fund in 1928, stemming from the joint appeal of the Lord Mayors of London, Newcastle and Cardiff for help in the relief of the distressed areas. This voluntary approach had, in fact, been initiated by Neville Chamberlain himself, who had written to the Lord Mayor of London in very direct terms:

Surely we cannot be satisfied to leave these unhappy people to go through the winter with only the barest necessities of life.

However, the Government itself acted in support of the voluntary effort rather than taking direct responsibility for it, and it is clear that the main objective of the action was to encourage transference away from the older industrial areas, especially through the provision of boots, clothing and train fare expenses. It was against this background that the Government then established the Industrial Transference Board the following January under the wing of the Ministry of Labour. Much of the initial funding for its work came from the Mansion House Fund. The operation of the Unemployment Grants Committee was carefully directed to conform to this strategy, under advice from the Industrial Transference Board:

As an essential condition for the growth of the will to move, nothing should be done which might tend to anchor men to their home district by holding out an illusory prospect of employment. We therefore reject as unsound policy, relief works in the depressed areas. Such schemes are temporary; at the end the situation is much as before, and the financial resources either at the Exchequer or of the Local Authorities have been drained to no permanent purpose. Grants of assistance such as those made by the Unemployment Grants Committee, which help to finance works carried out by the Local Authority in depressed areas, for the temporary employment of men in those areas, are a negation of the policy which ought in our opinion to be pursued.

As a result, the Government deliberately cut its grants for public works to the depressed areas and instead offered funds at a low rate of interest to prosperous areas on the condition that at least half the men employed on work projects would be drawn from the depressed areas. In August 1928, Baldwin himself made an appeal in the form of a circular, which was distributed throughout the prosperous areas. Every employer who could find work for DA men was asked to contact the nearest Labour Exchange, which would then send a representative to discuss the matter. However, Chamberlain expressed his disappointment over the results of this appeal later that year, and his officials became concerned that the cut-backs made in grants to local authorities for relief work in the depressed areas might lead to a serious level of disorder which would prove minatory to recent poor law policy. The following year, Winston Churchill took responsibility for drafting major sections of the Local Government Act, which reformed the Poor Law and brought about de-rating and a system of block grants. In a speech on the Bill in the Commons, he argued that it was…

… much better to bring industry back to the necessitous areas than to disperse their population, at enormous expense and waste, as if you were removing people from a plague-stricken or malarious region.

However, not for the last time, Churchill’s rhetorical turn of phrase was not appreciated by Chamberlain, who clearly saw in the Bill the means for the more careful management of local authorities, rather than as a means of equalising the effects of the low rateable values of these areas. Of course, Churchill was soon out of office, having held it for four years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, during which time he lowered pensionable age to sixty-five, introduced pensions for widows, and decreased the income-tax rate by ten per cent for the lowest earners among tax-payers.

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The Prince of Wales became the Patron of the National Council of Social Services in 1928, a body established to co-ordinate the charitable work of the various charitable organisations which had grown up throughout the decade to ‘dabble’ with the problems of unemployment. That year he made an extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where (above) he is pictured shaking hands with a worker in Middleton. He met men who had already been unemployed for years and, visibly and sincerely shaken, is reported to have said:

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman. … isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile.

As the parliamentary year ended, the Labour Party, and in particular its women MPs, could be forgiven for believing that they had much to look forward in the final year of the Twenties. Perhaps one of the changes the ‘flappers’ might have wished to see was a less patronising attitude from the press and their male colleagues than is displayed in the following report…

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(to be continued…)

 

 

Posted December 24, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Austerity, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Economics, First World War, History, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, Marxism, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, nationalisation, Nonconformist Chapels, Reconciliation, Respectability, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Unemployment, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History, World War One

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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Two: Hungary from Revolution to Revolution, 1919-1956.   Leave a comment

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Lines of Demarcation – Neutral zones (November 1918-March 1919)

Revolution and Reaction – Left and Right, 1919-20:

Following the end of the First World War, the collapse of the Habsburg Dual Monarchy, and the chaos which followed under the Károlyi government in Hungary, the Party of National Union, established by magnates and experienced politicians in 1919, and led by the Transylvanian Count István Bethlen, wanted to restore the pre-1914 relations of power. While they realised the need to improve the conditions not only of the ‘historic middle class’ but also the peasantry and the urban working classes, they adamantly rejected the radical endeavours of the ‘immigrant intelligentsia’. This term was, of course, their euphemism for the Jewish middle classes. They also envisaged the union of the lower and the upper strata in the harmony of national sentiment under their paternalistic dominance. A more striking development was the appearance of political groups advocating more radical change. Rightist radicalism had its strongest base the many thousands of demobilized officers and dismissed public servants, many of them from the territories now lost to Hungary, to be confirmed at Trianon the following year. In their view, the military collapse and the break-up of ‘historic Hungary’ was the fault of the enervated conservative liberalism of the dualist period, which they proposed to transcend not by democracy and land reform, but by an authoritarian government in which they would have a greater say, and measures aimed at the redistribution of property in favour of the ‘Christian middle class’ and the expanse of mobile, metropolitan capital, with its large Jewish population. Groups such as the Hungarian National Defence Association, led by Gyula Gömbös, had been impatiently urging the armed defence of the country from November 1918.

For the time being, however, the streets belonged to the political Left. Appeals from moderate Social Democrat ministers for order and patience evoked the contrary effect and served only to alienate the disaffected masses from them. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 by Béla Kun, a former journalist and trade union activist recently returned from captivity in Russia. Within a few weeks, the Communist Party had acquired a membership of over forty thousand, and by January 1919 a range of strikes and factory occupations had swept across the country, accompanied in the countryside by land seizures, attempts to introduce collective cultivation and the demand to eradicate all remaining vestiges of feudalism. While the radicals of both the Right and the Left openly challenged the tenets of the new régime, Károlyi’s own party effectively disappeared. Most of the Independentist leaders left the government when Jászi’s plan to keep the nationalities within Hungary was aborted. The main government party were now the moderate Social Democrats, struggling helplessly to retain control of the radical left among their own members who constituted an internal opposition to Károlyi’s government and were influenced by the communists.

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The growing pressure from this radical left and the loss of territory undermined the Károly régime. The communists, led by Kun, forced Károly to resign and the Hungarian Soviet Republic came into being on 21 March 1919, with a bloodless assumption of power. It lasted for 133 days. It began with not inconsiderable success when Soviet Hungary quickly linked itself to the Bolshevik aim of worldwide revolution which the war created and which looked at the time to be taking hold and spreading. Instead of redistributing land, Kun nationalised large estates and thus, by giving priority to supplying the cities and by issuing compulsory requisitions for food products, he alienated the mass of the peasants. Many of the intellectual élite, who had applauded the democratic reforms of the autumn of 1918 were initially drawn to the attractive goals of the Soviet Republic. They included not only Communists like Lukács, who became ‘People’s Commissar for Education’, but also members of the Nyugat circle who held positions in the Directorate of Literature, as well as Bartók and Kodály, who became members of the Directorate for Music. Gradually, however, most of these figures became disaffected, as did the middle classes and intelligentsia. Gyula Szekfű, a historian and one of the professors appointed to the University of Budapest, had already, by the end of July, begun work on his highly influential Three Generations (1920), hostile not only to the communist revolution but also to democracy and liberalism which he blamed for paving the way for Kun; soon after, Dezső Szabó, another early sympathiser, published The Swept-away Village, with its anti-urban, anti-revolutionary and anti-Semitic content, which were in high currency in inter-war Hungary.

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The measures which were taken against the opposition, the counter-revolution, were inconsistent and alienated the middle classes. The anti-clerical measures taken by the Kun government also annoyed the traditionally devout peasants, concerned about the security of the ‘family hearth’. All of this made them more susceptible to counter-revolutionary propaganda, which did not fail to emphasise the ‘foreign’ (that is, ‘Jewish’) character of the revolution (over half of the ‘commissars’ were indeed of Jewish origin). Organised counter-revolution consisted of two groups, both of them based outside the territory controlled by the Kun government but operating through sympathisers within it: the Hungarian National Committee (Anti-Bolshevik Committee) created in Vienna in April created by all the old parties and led by Count István Bethlen (pictured below), and a counter-revolutionary government set up at Arad on 5 May, led by Count Gyula Károlyi, later moving to Szeged. Apart from these errors of Kun’s leadership, it soon became evident that the hoped-for, swift-moving worldwide revolution had come to an abrupt halt almost at its inception. The failure of the even more fragile Bavarian Revolution and the failure of the Soviet Red Army to break through on the Ukrainian front into the Carpathians to provide assistance to Kun and his supporters put paid to any fleeting chance of success that the Hungarian Soviet Republic might have had of survival.

The ever-growing group of politicians and soldiers who saw the white and not the red as Hungary’s future colour organised themselves in Vienna and in Szeged, the latter being on the edge of the neutral zone agreed with the Entente powers on 31 December 1918 (see the map at the top). The Entente regarded them with far less suspicion than Kun’s “experimental” workers’ state. They represented a conservative-liberal restoration without the Habsburgs, which was far more acceptable in the French, British and Italian statesmen who were meeting in Paris. In August 1919, a Social Democratic government took charge again, temporarily, and a large band of leaders of the Soviet Republic fled to Vienna by train. Wearing the feather of the white crane on their field caps, detachments of commissioned officers quickly headed from Szeged in two prongs towards Budapest, which, in the meantime, had been occupied by Romanian troops at the invitation of the Entente powers. A brutal sequel followed the reprisals upon which the Romanians had already embarked. Executions, torture, corporal punishment and anti-Jewish pogroms marked the detachment of ‘white feathers’ to the “sinful” capital, the main seat of the Hungarian Bolsheviks. Counter-revolutionary terror far surpassed the red terror of the revolution both in the number of victims and the cruelty they were dealt.

Following the flight and the other communist leaders to Vienna, where they claimed political asylum, Gyula Peidl, a trade union leader who had been opposed to the unification of the workers’ parties and played no role under the Soviet Republic, took office. But with the country war-torn and divided between armies, a rival government in Szeged, and the eastern part under foreign occupation, it was unlikely that the new government would last long. Although it planned to consolidate its position by rejecting the dictatorship of the proletariat on the one hand and defying conservative restoration on the other, it was still regarded by its intended coalition partners – Liberals, peasant democrats and Christian Socialists – as crypto-communist, and failed to gain recognition from the Entente powers. Assisted by the Romanian Army, which had occupied Budapest, a coup forced the government to resign after only five days in ‘power’, on 6 August 1919. The government which replaced it, led by a small-scale industrialist, István Friedrich, not only dismantled the apparatus set up by the Soviet Republic, but also the achievements of Mihály Károlyi’s democratic government, in which Friedrich had himself been a state secretary. In particular, civil liberties were revoked, revolutionary tribunals were replaced with counter-revolutionary ones, which packed the prisons with workers, poor peasants and intellectuals, and by the beginning of 1920 nearly as many death sentences had been carried out as during the ‘red terror’.  The intellectual élite were persecuted; Bartók and Kodály were prosecuted, Móricz was imprisoned and several others, including Lukács, fled the country.

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Meanwhile, the Romanian Army continued their ‘pacification’ of the countryside, systematically transporting cattle, machinery and the new crop to Romania as ‘war reparations’. There was also the ‘National’ Army led by Admiral Horthy, who transferred his independent headquarters to Transdanubia and refused to surrender to the government. Without any title, his troops gave orders to the local authorities, and its most notorious detachments continued to be instruments of ‘naked terror’.  In three months, they may have killed as many as two thousand actual or suspected former Soviet members, Red Army soldiers, and sometimes innocent individuals who were Jews. Besides the executions and lynchings, about seventy thousand people were imprisoned or sent to internment camps during the same period. The emissary of the peace conference to Budapest in October 1919, Sir George Clerk, led finally to the withdrawal of the Romanian troops from Budapest, and their replacement by Horthy’s Army, which entered Budapest ceremonially on 16 November (see the picture below). In his speech before the notables of the capital, he stigmatised the capital as a ‘sinful city’ that had rejected its glorious past, Holy Crown and national colours for red rags. The people hoped to heal the wounds of the war and its aftermath by returning to order, authority and the so-called Christian-national system of values.

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It was also due to the increasing influence of Horthy and the changes in the political balance that Clerk abandoned his initial insistence on securing an important role for the Social Democrats and the Liberals in the new coalition government whose creation the Peace Conference demanded.  Since he commanded the only troops capable of maintaining order and being ready to subordinate them to the new government, it had to be an administration acceptable to Horthy personally and to the military in general. As a result, the government of Károly Huszár, formed on 19 November, the fourth in that year, was one in which the members of the Christian National Unity Party and other conservative-agrarian groups prevailed over those of the Independent Smallholder Party, the Social Democrats and the Liberals. Although the great powers insisted that voting in the national elections in January 1920 should take place by universal suffrage and secret ballot, the circumstances were unfavourable to fulfilling any illusion of a democratic outcome, according to Kontler. The Huszár government made only half-hearted attempts to ensure the freedom of the elections and the terrorist actions of the detachments of the National Army together with the recovering extreme Rightist organisations were designed to intimidate the candidates and supporters of the Social Democrats, the Smallholders and the Liberals. In protest, the Social Democrats boycotted the elections and withdrew from the political arena until mid-1922. The Smallholders and the Christian National Unity Party emerged as victors in the election.

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The ‘monarchists’ were now in the ascendancy over the ‘republicans’, and they argued that the monarchy should be retained to emphasise the historical continuity and legality of Hungary’s claim to the ‘crown lands’ of King István. However, as neither the great powers nor Hungary’s neighbours would countenance a Habsburg restoration, the medieval institution of the ‘Regent’ was resuscitated and Horthy was ‘elected’ regent on 1 March 1920, with strong presidential powers. Three days later, a new coalition government of Smallholders and Christian-Nationalists was formed under Sándor Simonyi-Semadam, its major and immediate task being the signing of the peace treaty in Paris.

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Restoration & Right-wing Ascendancy, 1920-1940:

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The Horthy régime owed its existence less to internal support within Hungary than to international contingencies, according to László Kontler. In spite of its roots in the extreme right, it bore the imprint of the priorities of the western peacemakers that assisted at its inception, even in the 1930s, when the changing international atmosphere made it lean even more heavily back towards these roots. Admiral Miklós Horthy had played no part in politics until, in the summer of 1919, already over the age of fifty, he temporarily took the helm of the radical anti-parliamentarian aspirations of the Christian (that is, non-Jewish) middle class which wanted authoritarian courses of action.

His inclinations made him a suitable ally of Hitler in the 1930s, although he was always a hesitant one. His views were always conservative and traditionalist, rather than radical. Having restored first public order and then parliamentary government, enabling the old conservative-liberal landowning and capitalist élite gradually returned to the political scene and overshadowed the extreme right until the 1930s with the rise of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The restoration concerned only the élite of the old dual monarchy, but not its political system, which was more democratic, with an extended suffrage and the presence of workers’ and peasants’ parties in parliament.

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At the same time, however, it was less ‘liberal’, with harsher censorship, police surveillance and official anti-Semitism of increasing intensity. The architects of this political outlook were Hungary’s two prime ministers in the period between 1920 and 1931, Count Pál Teleki and Count István Bethlen. Both of them were from Transylvanian families owning large estates and were sincere admirers of the liberal achievements of the post-1867 era. But the post-war events led them to the conclusion that liberalism had to be controlled, and they both argued that Central and Eastern Europe, including Hungary, was as yet too immature to simply graft western-style democracy onto the parliamentary system, which they nevertheless considered to be the only acceptable form of government. Teleki and Bethlen, therefore, advocated a ‘conservative democracy’, guided by the aristocracy and the landed gentry, as the proper response of the region to the challenges of the democratic age. They opposed all endeavours aimed either at the radical extension or the complete abolition of the liberal rights enshrined in the ‘parliamentarism’ of the dualist period. Kontler argues that they did so because:

Liberal democracy seemed to them a mechanical application of the majority principle, undermining political responsibility and stability. They despised communism and were suspicious of social democrats because of their campaign against private property. Finally, they opposed right-wing radical and fascist trends epitomised by Gyula Gömbös and the other ‘protectors of the race’ who thought that the parliamentary system had outlived itself and ought to be replaced by authoritarian rule which would facilitate a redistribution of economic functions at the expense of the Jewish bourgeoisie and in favour of the Hungarian Christian middle classes. 

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The fundamental character which the political system of the country retained until the German occupation of March 1944 emerged at this point as a result of Bethlen’s consolidation. Hungary became a parliamentary state with strong elements of authoritarianism and a hegemonic party structure, in which the institutions inherited from ‘the liberal era’ were operated in an anti-democratic fashion. The government acknowledged a lawful political opposition, consisting of Social Democrats, bourgeois liberals led by Vilmos Vázsonyi and later by Károly Rassay, and after 1930 a rejuvenated Independent Smallholder Party; and on the right, of different groups of Christian Socialists and Rightist radicals, such as the Party of Racial Defence founded by Gömbös, which seceded from the government party in 1923. However, the adjustment of interests took place, not at the sessions of parliament, but rather at conferences among the various factions within the government party; its decisions might have been criticised but were rarely changed by the opposition, which the vagaries of the system also deprived of a chance to implement alternative policies by assuming power.

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“No rebellion, but neither submission”

The ‘Trianon syndrome’ also accentuated the general infatuation of all things Hungarian, easily falling into chauvinism and racism, that characterised much of public discourse throughout the whole of the Horthy era. In the beginning, the Horthy régime sought solely to correct the unquestionably misconceived and unjust territorial provisions of the 1920 Paris agreements through the revision of national borders in ways that benefited Hungary. Instead of reconciliation and cooperation in reducing the significance of the borders, it opted to the end for national, political, ideological and military opposition. The irredentist and revisionist propaganda shown in the postcards below reveal how it did not recoil from crude devices that wounded the self-esteem of neighbouring Slavic peoples who, of course, replied in kind. But the régime was differentiated from first fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany by the fact that it never even considered mobilising the masses for violent extra-parliamentary action against a post-feudal, aristocratic order, or against the ethnic and linguistic minorities, especially the Jews. Neither did it attempt a systematic regimentation of the press and cultural life in general.

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In the mid-1920s, Hungary was a bourgeois conservative-liberal state living in relative peace, with a functioning parliament. It also retained many antiquated and obsolete features, but these did not obstruct moderate modernisation in the spirit of both progressive conservatism and liberalism. Public health and education reforms improved conditions in the towns and villages, where many new technical courses were offered, and an extensive network of marketing cooperatives developed under the name Hangya, (Ant). Count István Bethlen was the ‘unruffled father of the consolidation’ but Count Pál Teleki was the first prime minister, an academic geographer who was an authority on ethnic groups and economic geography (pictured below); as such, he participated, by invitation, in the first demarcation of the state borders of modern Iraq in 1924-25. At that point, Bethlen himself became the head of government. The Communist Party was illegal and the Social Democratic Party, in a pact with the Smallholder Party, renounced its agitation among the majority agrarian population in order to secure its ability to function in the cities and urban areas.

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On the question of Trianon, although the British Tory governments of the mid-1920s lost interest in Central European affairs, the Hungarian cause found at least one influential and steadfast British supporter in the person of the press magnate Harold Sidney Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere who, under the charms of a Hungarian aristocratic lady, published his article, Hungary’s Place under the Sun, in the Daily Mail in June 1927. Rothermere’s proposal was that, in the interests of peace in Central Europe and the more effective containment of Bolshevism, the predominantly Hungarian-inhabited borderlands of the other successor states should be restored to Hungary. His proposal embarrassed the British government and evoked a mixed response from within Hungary itself. On the one hand, it was welcomed by the Hungarian Revisionist League of several hundred social organisations and corporate bodies; on the other hand, an ethnically inspired revision of the Treaty seemed less than satisfactory for many in official circles and was fully acceptable for the social democratic and liberal opposition. Rothermere’s intervention coincided with two developments: growing and well-founded disillusionment with schemes for peaceful revision, and the recovery of Hungary’s scope of action through the departure of both the foreign financial and military commissioners by early 1927. As soon as the surveillance was lifted, Hungary, like the other defeated countries in the First World War, began to evade the military stipulations of the peace treaty and began making overtures to both Italy and Germany.

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Király útca (King Street), Budapest, in the 1920s

The world economic crisis of 1929-31 reached less-developed Hungary after a brief delay at the end of the ‘reconstruction’ period. It immediately muddied the puddles of prosperity that were barely a few years old. It set back the regeneration of Hungarian industry that had switched from a war to a peace economy and manufactured mostly consumer goods and was therefore very sensitive to the development of a buyer’s market. Not for the first or last time, it choked the agrarian economy into a cycle of overproduction. The economic crisis was not yet over but receding, when the right-wing army officer, Gyula Gömbös, pushed István Bethlen aside to become PM, and an unmistakable fascism gained ground. This was signalled by corporate endeavours, populist demagogy (including some ‘leftist’ arguments), racism and brutal violence and unbridled friendship with Benito and Adolf. After a forced and modest turn to the left dictated by consolidation, the pendulum swung to the right. And when the economic crisis ended, hopes for war kept the economy growing. Gömbös’ successor, Kálmán Darányi, announced the Győr Programme in the “Hungarian Ruhr region”, putting the heavy industry in the gravitational centre of industrial activity which served the rearmament drive previously prohibited by the Entente powers.

Changes in the international scene between 1936 and 1938 encouraged fascist organisations in Hungary. Hitler’s re-militarisation of the Rhineland only evoked consternation and protest, but no action on the part of the western powers; the German-Italian axis eventually came into existence, with Japan also joining in the Anti-Comintern Pact; General Franco’s armies were gaining the upper hand in the Spanish Civil War. At the same time, PM Darányi’s foreign minister, Kálman Kánya negotiated in vain with his opposite numbers from the ‘Little Entente’ countries during the summer and autumn of 1937 in order to secure a non-aggression pact linked to the settlement of the minorities’ problem and the acknowledgement of Hungarian military parity; and he also failed to reawaken British interest in Hungary in order to counter Germany’s growing influence. As a result, these moves only served to annoy Hitler, who, having decided on action against Austria and Czechoslovakia, nevertheless assured the Hungarian leaders that he considered their claims against the latter as valid and expected them to cooperate in the execution of his plans.

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The Anschluss on 12-13 March 1938 still took the Hungarian establishment by surprise, the more so since they were expecting Hitler to cede the Burgenland to Hungary, which he proved unwilling to do. On the other hand, the German annexation of Austria was hailed among the followers of Szálasi, who despite the banning of his Arrow Cross Party shortly earlier, were able to exert formidable propaganda and political agitation. This prompted Darányi to work out an agreement with the extremists, who, in return for moderating their programme, were legalised again as the Hungarist Movement. This was too much for the conservatives as well as for Horthy himself. Darányi was dismissed by the latter on 13 May 1938 and replaced by Béla Imrédy, who had a reputation as an outstanding financial expert and a determined Anglophile and ‘Hungarism’ was averse to his political taste. Yet it was under his premiership that the Hungarian parliament stepped up rearmament by enacting the new military budget which resulted in a great economic boom: a twenty-one per cent increase in industrial output by 1939, nearly as much as the entire economic growth since 1920. It also enacted the anti-Jewish legislation prepared under Darányi, the law on the more efficient assurance of equilibrium in social and economic life established a twenty per cent ceiling on the employment of ‘persons of the Israelite faith’ in business and the professions, depriving about fifteen thousand Jewish people of jobs for which they were qualified. Some of the governing party as well as Liberals and Social Democrats in parliament, in addition to prominent figures in cultural and intellectual life, including Bartók, Kodály, and Móricz protested, while the radical Right found the measure too indulgent.

However, he was vulnerable to his political opponents, who claimed that they had discovered he had Jewish ancestry. In order to deflect attention from this accusation, Imrédy crossed over to the extreme right and became the main promoter of anti-Semitic legislation. Therefore, the main legacy of his premiership was, therefore, a second anti-Jewish law (May 5th, 1939), which defined Jews as a racial group for the first time. As it was not a definition based on religious observance, it became the harbinger of the Holocaust. People with two or more Jewish-born grandparents were declared Jewish. Private companies were forbidden to employ more than 12% Jews. 250,000 Hungarian Jews lost their income. Most of them lost their right to vote as well. I have written extensively both about the anti-Jewish Laws and Hungary’s international relations, particularly with Britain, elsewhere on this site:

https://chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/horthy-hitler-and-the-hungarian-holocaust-1936-44/

https://chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/magyar-british-relations-in-the-era-of-the-two-world-wars-part-two-world-peace-to-world-war-1929-1939/

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Territorial changes affecting Hungary, 1938-41

Here, I wish to concentrate on Hungary’s internal politics and the domestic policies of the Horthy governments. Nevertheless, the international situation soon made it difficult for the Darányi government to follow policies independent from German influence, whether foreign or domestic. The blitzkrieg on Poland of September 1939 forced many Poles to cross the Carpathians into Slovakia (by then under Hungarian occupation thanks to the country joining the Axis alliance, and gaining – under the First Vienna accord – considerable territories in Slovakia containing significant Hungarian populations) and into post-Trianon Hungary itself. In spite of German protests, the Polish refugees who decided to remain in Hungary were made welcome, in keeping with the historical friendship between Poland and Hungary,  But this brief interlude of Polish asylum, as István Lázár has pointed out represented not even a momentary halt in our country’s calamitous course. Lázár has also pointed out that although most of the Jews living in the Slovakian territories declared themselves to be Hungarian, this did nothing to improve their ultimate fate, and that many of the Hungarians who “returned home’ bitterly observed that though they had been subject to harmful discrimination as members of a national minority “over there”, on the other side of the Danube, the bourgeois Republic of Czechoslovakia did uphold civil rights and equality to a much greater extent than did a still half-feudal Hungary, whose gendarmes were abusive and where an increasingly intimidatory atmosphere developed between late 1939 and 1944.

The Death Bed of Democracy, 1941-1956.

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At the beginning of this period, Pál Teleki returned to the premiership. Lázár has described him as a ‘schizoid character’ and a ‘vacillating moralist’. He supported serious fact-finding sociological investigations about conditions among the poorest members of Hungarian society, but also arrived at agreements with the extremists of aggressive racism, perhaps to take the wind out of their sails in the spirit of his own more moderate nationalism. But his plan to form a counterweight to Nazi racism by appeasing Hungarian racists was blown apart by the Regent’s decision in the spring of 1941, to allow the transit of German forces to attack Yugoslavia. Finding himself in an impossible situation, and in a genuine but ultimately futile gesture, Teleki shot himself, leaving a confused letter for Admiral Horthy, which accused ‘the nation’ of perfidiousness and cowardice in siding with the scoundrels … The most beastly nation. He blamed himself for not stopping the Regent in this. In June 1941, Hungary entered the war against the Soviet Union and subsequently with the Allied Powers. Not consulting Parliament, Prime Minister László Bárdossy had, in fact, launched Hungary into the war illegally in answer to the bombing of Kassa, which he claimed was a Soviet provocation.

By entering the war, Bárdossy and his successors as PM expected at least to retain the territories re-annexed to Hungary between 1938 and 1941, and all other aspects of the inter-war régime were intended to remain unchanged by Horthy and Kallay, who not only repudiated any communication with the Soviets, but were also unwilling to co-operate with the representatives of the democratic alternative to the Axis alliance which was beginning to take shape by the summer of 1943. This even included an exclusive circle of aristocrats around Bethlen who established a National Casino and then went on with the Liberals of Károly Rassay to create the Democratic Bourgeois Alliance with a programme of gradual reforms. Endre Bajccsy- Zsilinszky and Zoltán Tildy of the Independent Smallholder Party not only submitted a memorandum to the government urging it to break away from Germany and conclude a separate peace but also worked out a common programme of democratisation with the Social Democrats. Despite the great wave of persecution in 1942, the Communists also reorganised themselves under the cover name of ‘the Peace Party’, which made it easier for them to collaborate with anti-fascists in the Independence Movement who, at the same time, harboured anti-Bolshevik sentiments.

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I have written elsewhere about the Movement, Magyar Függetlenségi Mozgalom, founded in late 1941 under the leadership of Domokos Szent-Iványi (right), whose recently published memoirs deal with the period from 1939 to 1956, though mainly up to his arrest by the Communist-led government in 1946.

The western powers would have preferred to be dealing, after the war, with a thoroughly reformed Hungary governed by a ‘popular front’ of Liberals, Smallholders and Social Democrats. While the Nazis called for an intensification of the war effort, the Hungarians tried to diminish it and to make overtures to the Allies. However, their cautious and secretive diplomacy was closely followed by the Germans, who did not permit the Hungarians to reach a separate deal. Kállay had no alternative but to continue the military co-operation with Germany, though he protected the Jews living in Hungary, including the refugees from the Third Reich. He also permitted anti-Nazi groups to re-emerge and operate more openly. Above all, he hoped to be able to surrender to Western troops, thus avoiding a Soviet invasion. The US sent the Hungarian-American Francis Deák to Lisbon with instructions to talk to the Hungarians with the objective of keeping Hungary out of Soviet control. On 1 October Roosevelt met the Habsburg Otto von Habsburg, who had remained as his guest in the US during the war and assured him that if Romania remained with the Axis and Hungary joined the Allies, the US would support a continued Hungarian occupation and retention of southern Transylvania. The Hungarian government was willing and sent a message to Lisbon to that effect.

In January 1944, the Hungarian Government authorised the Archduke to act on its behalf. An American military mission was dropped into Western Hungary on 14 March, calling for Horthy’s surrender. Twenty thousand Allied troops were then set to parachute into the country and the Hungarian Army would then join the fight against the Germans. However, these moves became known to German intelligence, which had cracked the communications code.  By the time Horthy came to believe that his government could reach an agreement with the Soviets to end their involvement on the eastern front, it was again too late. On March 18th, 1944, Hitler summoned Horthy to a conference in Austria, where he demanded greater collaboration from the Hungarian state in his ‘final solution’ of his Jewish problem. Horthy resisted, but while he was still at the conference, German tanks rolled into Budapest on 19th March. Italy managed to pull out of the war, but while Horthy was still conferring at Hitler’s headquarters, a small German army had completed its occupation of Hungary by 22 March. By this time Horthy possessed neither moral nor physical strength to resist, and simply settled for keeping up appearances, with a severely limited sovereignty.

002On March 23rd, 1944, the government of Döme Sztójay was installed. Among his other first moves, Sztójay legalized the overtly Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which quickly began organizing throughout the country. During the four-day interregnum following the German occupation, the Ministry of the Interior was put in the hands of right-wing politicians well-known for their hostility to Jews. I have written extensively in other articles (see the references above) about the Holocaust which followed, both in the Adolf Eichmann’s deportations of the estimated 440,000 Jews from rural Hungary and the occupied territories to Auschwitz (pictured above) and other ‘death camps’. The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and a staff of a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc. Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár on 18 May. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews. When news of the deportations reached British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he wrote in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated July 11, 1944:

 “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”

The idea that any member of the Hungarian government, including the President, or Regent, was unaware of the scale and nature of the deportations is fanciful, to say the least, as is the idea that Horthy was responsible for stopping the deportations from the countryside and/ or the capital. It is true that Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6, but by then the Regent was virtually powerless. This is demonstrated by the fact that another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. The Sztójay government continued to ignore the Regent and rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. What prevented this was that the Romanians switched sides on 23 August 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and it was on Himmler’s orders that the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary was enacted on 25 August. But with the German high command preoccupied elsewhere, Horthy regained sufficient authority to finally dismiss Prime Minister Sztójay on 29 August. By then the war aims of the Horthy régime, the restoration of Hungary to its pre-Trianon status, were in tatters. The First and Second Awards and the acquisitions by force of arms would mean nothing after the defeat which now seemed inevitable. The fate of Transylvania was still in the balance in the summer of 1944, with everything depending on who would liberate the contested territories from the Germans. When Royal Romania succeeded in pulling out, the Soviet and Romanian forces combined forces began a joint attack and the weakened Hungarian Army was unable to contain them.

024A later ‘reign of terror’ followed the coup which brought the Szalási Arrow Cross government to power and ended Horthy’s rule in Hungary on 15 October 1944 (in the picture, top right, Ferenc Szalási in the foreground). Following this, tens of thousands of Jews of Budapest were sent on foot to the Austrian border in ‘death marches’ (pictured below), and most of the remaining forced labourers under Hungarian Army command were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Two ghettos were set up in Budapest. The big Budapest ghetto was set up and walled in the Erzsébetváros part of Budapest on 29 November. Arrow Cross raids and mass executions occurred in both ghettos regularly. In addition, in the two months between November 1944 and February 1945, the Arrow Cross shot between ten and fifteen thousand Jews on the banks of the Danube.

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Soviet troops liberated the big Budapest ghetto on 18 January 1945 (pictured above, bottom right). On the Buda side of the town, the encircled Arrow Cross continued their murders until the Soviets took Buda on 13 February.

 

As the front rolled westwards through Hungary,  revolutionary changes were already taking place behind it. However, Hungarian society could not achieve these by its own efforts: they were brought about with the help of foreign troops. This did not mean the immediate or forceful introduction of the Soviet political system. In the summer of 1945, the diplomat Domokos Szent-Ivanyi was optimistic about the future of Hungary, arriving at the conclusion that there were still opportunities for a return to democracy which could be realised with a well-planned strategy. One of his key observations in support of this was that…

The decisive factor in the Carpo-Danubian Basin as well as in the whole of East Central Europe is, and will be for many decades to come, the Soviet Union. In consequence any solution and settlement must be made with the cooperation of the Soviets.

As to the Western Democracies they are only of secondary important to the region. In handling the problems of Central Europe, the Western Democracies had shown a frightening weakness. In spite of all previous promises and obligations, countries and individuals alike had been abandoned by the Anglo-Saxons… My opinion was that no Hungarian Government must compromise its good relationship with the Soviet Union… Even in the case of a future war in which the Soviet Union lost, the immense territory of the Russian Empire would still be there, and she would continue to be Hungary’s most powerful neighbour.

This was a prophetic statement of the course which the second half of the twentieth century would take, and indeed the first decades of the twenty-first. Of course, the ‘future war’ turned out to be a long, cold one. But first, from his point of view, Hungarian-Russian relations could only be achieved by the removal from power of the Rákosi-Gerő clique, but this must also be achieved by legal, constitutional means and not by conspiracies and intrigue, by holding and winning indisputable elections. His MFM, the ‘underground’ inheritor of the conservative-liberal democratic tradition of Bethlen and Teleki, pledged its support to the Smallholders’ Party in this transition process. When the full force of the atrocities receded, the Soviet military leadership was more inclined to trust the routine business of public administration to the experienced Hungarian officials rather than to radical organisations, including previously banned communist ones, which had been suddenly brought to life with renewed popular support. Many of the Communist veterans of 1919 had spent the past thirty-five years in exile, many of them in Moscow, and though some wanted to see an immediate reintroduction of the dictatorship of the proletariat, these individuals were discouraged by the fact that a return of a ‘conservative-liberal democracy’ rather than a ‘people’s democracy’ was already on the national agenda. This sense was soon reinforced by the arrival of delegates from the western wartime allies; British, American and French officers belonging to the Allied Control Commission were present to oversee the domestic situation in Hungary.

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Although the fighting sometimes left large areas untouched, death and destruction were nationwide. According to rough calculations, the economic losses suffered during the war amounted to five times the national income of 1938, the last year of ‘outright’ peace, or forty per cent of the total national wealth. In the fighting itself, between 120 and 140 thousand people were killed and another quarter of a million never returned from captivity in Soviet Russia. They either died there or found new homes elsewhere. At least half a million Hungarians were kept in these camps for longer terms, most released after two or three years, though tens of thousands were set free only in the next decade. Of course, these losses were in addition to the loss of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews, Roma and other Holocaust victims referred to above. And then many thousands of ethnic Swabian Hungarians were either deported to Germany or taken to the Soviet Union for so-called ‘reparations’ work. Many women and girls in Budapest were raped by Red Army soldiers. In other ‘material terms’, Budapest and several hundred other settlements lay in ruins and not a single bridge across the Danube remained intact. The Nazis had plundered the gold reserves of the National Bank, most of the railway rolling-stock, machinery and other equipment, farm animals, museum treasures and a great deal of private property. What remained of food and livestock passed into the possession of the Red Army, which used them to supply their forces stationed in Hungary, as well as those in transit to the west.

These were just the basic, enforced costs and scars of war. There were many other problems related to the changing borders, mass internal migrations and emigration, racism and discrimination, economic reparations and inflation, all of which had to be dealt with by central government. Under moderate military supervision, local self-government bodies proved effective in upholding the law and new possibilities for further education opened up for the children of workers and peasants. Between 1945 and 1949 Hungary’s national political scene altered radically and violently. A dozen or so political parties revived or were established in 1945 and contested the fair and free elections of 1945. At first, everything went according to plan for the Independence Movement and the Smallholders’ Party, which overwhelmingly won both the municipal and general elections of autumn 1945.

However, straight after the general election, an argument broke out among the leading party members as to who the candidate for President should be (to be elected in the Parliament) and who should be Prime Minister. Also, they were forced into a Coalition government with the Social Democrats and Communists. The twelve parties were then quickly reduced to four by the manoeuvring and ‘salami-slicing’ tactics of the Communists. Over the course of the next year, the leaders of the Independence Movement were intimidated and finally arrested. Of the two peasant parties and two workers’ parties remaining, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party merged in 1948 to form the Hungarian Working People’s Party. As in the rest of Eastern Europe, a “people’s democracy” was then established which essentially promised to follow the peaceful path of socialist revolution. In some countries, other parties survived on a nominal basis, or in alliance with the ‘leading party’. In Hungary, however, political activity could only continue within the framework of the People’s Front.

Initially, the Smallholder-led Coalition government gave an impressive economic performance. Reconstruction proceeded quickly. Land reform benefited 650,000 landless and Smallholder peasants. Although workers wages fell to a fraction of what they had been earlier, industrial recovery was very rapid. As well as catering for the domestic market, trade began with Soviet, Czechoslovak and Romanian partners. But most of the progress of the 1945-49 period was then destroyed in the period which followed, 1949-53. The unrealistically ambitious plan targets set, the rapid pace of industrialisation and armaments production and the compulsory collectivization of the land, undermining the spontaneous organisation of cooperatives led to a deterioration of workers’ conditions at all levels and to peasants fleeing from the land, causing further ‘dilution’ of labour. It also led to a variety of further acts of intimidation of small-scale producers and the middle classes, appropriation of property and class discrimination throughout society, even involving schoolchildren. Production was emphasised at the expense of consumption, leading to directed labour and food rationing. Finally, there were the show trials and executions,  which were becoming the familiar traits of Stalinist régimes.

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The Congress of Young Communists – a poster by István Czeglédi & Tibor Bányhegyi

At the beginning of the 1950s, every poster displayed a pure smile or healthy muscles. Portraits of Mátyás Rákosi, the “people’s wise leader”, filled the streets. 

After Stalin’s death, Imre Nagy, himself a former exile in Moscow, returned from the periphery of the party to the centre of events. In 1944-45 he distributed land in his capacity as minister of agriculture in the Debrecen provisional government; in 1953 he was prime minister, though Rákosi remained as the Party’s first secretary. Consequently, the next years failed to produce the necessary political corrections, even after the momentous Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party. Although Nagy succeeded in putting the economy on a sounder footing and those sentenced and imprisoned unjustly were rehabilitated, Rákosi and his clique launched one counter-attack after another. At the end of his memoirs on the Hungarian Independence Movement, Domokos Szent-Iványi draws ‘telling’ conclusions about the whole period of authoritarian government in Hungary. Written with the benefit of hindsight following a decade in prison and the subsequent Revolution of October 1956, his view of recent Hungarian events had clearly shifted his view of  Hungary’s place in European history, especially in relation to the Soviet Union, from those written in the summer of 1945, quoted above:

The dictatorship of Rákosi and his gang had no other support but the bayonets of the Red Army or rather the power of the secret services of the Russian Communist Party and of the Red Army. It was a situation which, within less than a decade, led to the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956, the end of the Rákosi dictatorship and a more peaceful and less disturbed period of the History of Hungary.

The period of the “Twenty-Five Years of Regency” (1919-1944), as well as the dictatorship of the Nazi supported Szálasi régime (1944) and the dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi and his gang, supported by Stalin’s and Beria’s régime, cannot be considered or treated as independent chapters of Hungarian History. They were the continuation of Hungary’s history of the previous centuries and they do not mark the end of the natural evolution of the Hungarian people. This evolution has been determined by political and geographical factors and the future of Hungary will be influenced similarly by the same factors.

Hungary belongs to Western Civilization and she is essentially a European country. Yet, on the other hand, she had always been on the very line between Eastern and Western Civilization, and has never freed herself from Eastern influence entirely.

Sources:

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

István Lázár (1992), An Illustrated History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szeker (eds.) (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-1946. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

Posted December 14, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Anglo-Saxons, anti-Semitism, Assimilation, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Civil Rights, Civilization, Co-operativism, Cold War, Communism, democracy, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Hungarian History, Hungary, Immigration, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, Journalism, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, Migration, Monarchy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, Population, populism, Racism, Refugees, Russia, terror, tyranny, Unemployment, Unionists, USSR, Utopianism, Warfare, Yugoslavia

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

1948-49: The Turning Point

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

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Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948

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

Class teacher Sára Németh

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

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

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

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

Dark years again, 1949-53:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

See part three, following.

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