Archive for the ‘Fascism’ Tag

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

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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

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

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

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

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

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

… I do so loathe this war. I really feel that barbarism is creeping over the earth again and that mankind is going backward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

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

The Final Steps to European War:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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

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Britain Sixty Years Ago (VI): Immigration and the Myths of Integration   1 comment

Recent debates about migration to Britain from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and elsewhere are somewhat reminiscent of those which began to be heard in the late fifties in British politics. From 1948 to 1962, there was a virtually open door for immigrants coming into Britain from the remaining colonies and the Commonwealth. The British debate over immigration up to about 1957, the year I was added to the natural increase statistics of Nottinghamshire, had been characterised by contradiction and paradox. On the one hand, overt ‘racialism’ had been discredited by the Nazi persecutions, and Britain’s identity was tied up in its identity as the vanquishing angel of a political culture founded on racial theories and their practices. This meant that the few remaining unapologetic racialists, the anti-Semitic fringe and the pro-apartheid colonialists were considered outcasts from civilised discourse. Official documents from the period describe the handful of handful of MPs who were outspokenly racialist as ‘nutters’. Oswald Mosley, who would have been a likely puppet prime minister had Hitler’s plans for invading Britain succeeded, was let out of prison after the war and allowed to yell at his small band of unrepentant fascist supporters, such was the lack of threat he posed to the King’s peace. The public propaganda of Empire and Commonwealth instead made much of the concept of a family of races cooperating together under the Union flag.

In Whitehall, the Colonial Office strongly supported the right of black Caribbean people to migrate to the Mother Country, fending off the worries of the Ministry of Labour about the effects of unemployment during economic downturns. When some five hundred immigrants had arrived from the West Indies on the converted German troopship, SS Windrush, in 1948, the Home Secretary had declared that though some people feel it would be a bad thing to give the coloured races of the Empire the idea that… they are the equals of the people of this country… we recognise the right of the colonial peoples to be treated as men and brothers of the people of this country. Successive governments, Labour and Tory, saw Britain as the polar opposite of Nazi Germany, a benign and unprejudiced island which was connected to the modern world. The Jewish migration of the late thirties and forties had brought one of the greatest top-ups of skill and energy that any modern European state had ever seen. In addition, the country already had a population of about seventy-five thousand black and Asian people at the end of the war, and Labour shortages suggested that it needed many more. The segregation of the American Deep South and the development of apartheid policies in South Africa were regarded with high-minded contempt.

However, while pre-war British society had never been as brutal about race as France or Spain, never mind Germany, it was still riddled with racialism from top to bottom. In places like Coventry, there had been a good deal of prejudice against the Welsh, Irish and Indian migrants who had arrived in large numbers from the mid-thirties onwards. This continued after the war, with coloured workers, in particular, being kept in low-paid factory jobs by foremen and union shop-stewards alike. Although the small wartime community in the city had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, this was still a relatively small number compared with white migrants from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, especially Ireland, as can be seen in the tables below:

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The sub-continental ethnic minority communities were described by many contemporary Coventrians as quiet and peace-loving, ‘colonising’ some of the more rundown housing stock along the Foleshill Road to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry at the time, the Indian minorities were anxious to protect their own culture and identity. As early as 1952, the City Council had granted Pakistani Muslims land for separate burial facilities and for the building of a Mosque. Despite being relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian and Pakistani communities were, however, not immune from the sort of racial prejudice which was beginning to disfigure Britain nationally, especially the barbs directed at the Caribbean communities. Estate agents in Coventry began to operate a colour bar in October 1954, following the following editorial in the Coventry Standard, the weekly local newspaper:

The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas… They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room. 

These were not the outpourings of a bigoted correspondent, but the major editorial, the like of which had appeared in local newspapers before the War, questioning the arrival in the city of the sweepings of the nation, in reference to the destitute miners whom my grandfather helped to find accommodation and work in the Walsgrave and Binley areas on the outskirts of the city. But these new stereotypes, though just as inaccurate, were far more virulent, and could not be so easily counteracted and contradicted by people who appeared so different from, and therefore to, the native Coventrians. The reality, of course, was at variance from this obvious conflation of the Caribbean and Asian minorities.  The former was an even smaller minority in Coventry than the latter, amounting to only 1,200 even by 1961, and the idea of alcoholic or methylated Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus staggering along the Foleshill Road stemmed from a complete ignorance of other religious and ethnic cultures, even when compared with other prejudicial statements of the time.

Although the Standard‘s editor may have been conscious of the housing pressures in neighbouring Birmingham, the vision of black people pouring into cities throughout Britain was, again, a clear exaggeration, especially for the early fifties. This can only be explained by the observation that ‘racialism’ seems to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society at this time, including the engineering trade unions. The Census of 1961 below showed that immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population. The local population was increasing by approximately four thousand per year between 1951 and 1966,  but the proportion of this attributable to general migration declined dramatically over these fifteen years. Between 1951 and 1961 a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for 44.5 per cent of population growth in what it referred to as the Coventry belt (presumably, this included the nearby urbanised towns and villages of north and east Warwickshire).

In many areas of the country in the early fifties, white working-class people hardly ever came across anyone of another colour after the black GIs returned home. Neither were Polish and Eastern European migrants free from discrimination, although their white skins were more welcome. As with the Welsh and Irish migrants before them, the prejudice against the wartime Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation, strengthening the need for ethnic identification and compensatory status, reinforcing minority group solidarity and building the Polish community into a social entity. These conditions defined the ethnic vitality of the community, giving shape to its social, religious, economic and political life, in addition to enabling it to meet every need of Polish immigrants in Britain. By the end of the next decade, it could be observed that:

The Pole can buy Polish food from Polish shops, eat in Polish restaurants, sleep in Polish hotels or digs, with a Polish landlady, entertain friends in Polish clubs, attend a Polish doctor (over 500 are practising in Britain or dentist (80 Polish dental services), have a Polish priest and be buried by a Polish undertaker.

Anti-Semitism also remained common in the popular literature of the 1950s, and the actual practices of the British upper middle classes towards ordinary Jewish communities remained, as they had done before the war, close to the colour bar practised by Americans. Before the war, Jewish working people had been barely tolerated as servants and shopkeepers. The centres of Yiddish-speaking in London until the early 1950s were the East End districts of Whitechapel, Aldgate, Spitalfields and Stepney (the latter subsequently formed part of the larger borough of Tower Hamlets, which was widely populated by the Bangladeshi community from the 1980s). The influential major Jewish school in the East End, the Jews’ Free School, which had up to five thousand pupils in the early 1900s, saw itself as a citadel of anglicisation through to the 1950s, since Yiddish was regarded, not as a language in its own right, but as a corrupt form of German, itself still labelled as the language of the corrupt and oppressive Nazi regime. Even before the Second World War, irrespective of their attitudes towards religion, many Zionist groups throughout Europe had promoted Hebrew and stressed their rejection of Yiddish as the product of the Diaspora. Popular Jewish youth clubs in Britain, in common cause with the schools, had also promoted anglicisation and had also been highly successful in producing a generation oriented towards sports, dancing and mainstream British leisure pursuits.

Nevertheless, there also remained substantial Yiddish-speaking immigrant communities in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. The fundamentalist, or Orthodox communities, had already established themselves in the Stamford and Stoke Newington areas of Greater London before the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that these communities grew to significant sizes. For many of them, continuing to speak Yiddish, rather than using the modern Hebrew of Israel after 1948, was an act of defiance towards Zionism. It was therefore not surprising that, as early as the 1950s, it was a very common response of both first and second generation British Jews from the mainstream communities to deny all knowledge of Yiddish. Of those who did, only a tiny minority would be heard using it in public, even as late as the early 1980s, though that decade also, later, saw an enormous increase in Yiddish.

In the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the numbers of Ashkenazi Jews were swollen by a significant proportion of the relatively few Holocaust survivors who were allowed to settle in Britain and still further boosted by some hundreds of Hungarian Jews who left Hungary after the 1956 Uprising, after which they suffered further persecution from the Kádár regime. I have written extensively, elsewhere on this site, about the Hungarian refugees who arrived in Britain in the winter and spring of 1956-57, and we know that of the 200,000 who fled Hungary during those months, some 56,000 were officially admitted to the UK. Of course, in addition to the Jews who had already settled in London and Manchester, these latest arrivals were from all religions and classes in Hungary, not just the élite army officers, landowners and capitalists who had fled the Fascism of the Horthy and Szalási regimes, but all those fearing repression and reprisals, or seizing the opportunity to seek a higher standard of living in western Europe.  Among them were many of Jewish origin who had converted to Protestantism or Catholicism, along with the original adherents of those religions. The fifty-six exiles comprised a wide range of landless peasants, unskilled workers, craftsmen, professionals and entrepreneurs.

Marika Sherwood emigrated first to Australia as a ten-year-old in 1948 with her parents and grandparents. She quickly learnt English and easily assimilated into school life. She was briefly married to an Australian, but her amorphous yearning for Europe led to her re-migration to London, where she formed a circle of native British friends since she knew almost no Hungarians. Although returning to Hungary for regular visits to relatives, her Hungarian was English-accented and of the ‘kitchen’ variety. While her son maintained an interest in Hungary, he spoke only a few words of Hungarian, and his wife and friends were all English. Marika’s roundabout route to Britain was far from typical of the Hungarian exiles there who left their native land in the late forties and fifties, but her rapid assimilation into English life certainly was so. Unlike the Poles, the Hungarians did not establish separate support networks or religious and cultural institutions, though at the height of the exodus the Hungarian Embassy sponsored nine British-Hungarian associations. The oldest one, in London, was founded in 1951 and conducted its meetings in English. In the following twenty years, its membership dropped by half, from 150 to 75. In one area the membership included only ‘fifty-sixers’, as earlier immigrants either died or moved away, but in two others there were remnants of earlier migrations. Marika Sherwood’s concluding remarks are perhaps the most significant in her account, in that they draw attention, not so much to discrimination faced by immigrants among their hosts, but to the lack of attention paid by ‘the British’ to questions of migration, assimilation and integration:

The British myopia regarding immigration has prevented researchers recognising that some more general questions regarding the absorption and assimilation of immigrants have to be answered before we can begin to understand reactions to Black immigrants or the responses of Black peoples to such host reactions. We need to know the ramifications of meaning behind the lack of hyphenated Britons. We need to know if there are pressures to lose one’s ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and which indicators the natives find least tolerable – and why. When we know more we might be able to deal more successfully with some aspects of the racism  which greeted and continues to greet Black immigrants. 

The fact remains that almost as soon as the first post-war migrants had arrived from Jamaica and the other West Indian islands, popular papers were reporting worries about their cleanliness, sexual habits and criminality: ‘No dogs, No blacks, No Irish’ was not a myth, but a perfectly common sign on boarding houses. The hostility and coldness of native British, particularly in the English towns and cities, was quickly reported back by the early migrants. Even Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour cabinet in 1945-51, talked of the polluting poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities of the African colonies. Perhaps, therefore, we should not act quite so surprised that such attitudes still continue to fall as readily from the lips of Labour as well as Tory politicians in the twenty-first century as they did sixty years ago.

Even then, in the mid-fifties, questions of race were obscure and academic for most people, as the country as a whole remained predominantly white. Until at least a decade later, there were only small pockets of ‘coloured’ people in the poorer inner-city areas. There were debates in the Tory cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, but most of them never got anywhere near changing immigration policy. Any legislation to limit migration within the Commonwealth would have also applied to the white people of the old dominions too, or it would have been clearly and unacceptably based on racial discrimination. In the fifties, conservatives and socialists alike regarded themselves as civilized and liberal on race, but still showed a tendency to pick and choose from different parts of the Empire and Commonwealth. For instance, the Colonial Office specifically championed the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians over the unskilled and largely lazy Indians. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent had begun almost immediately after its independence and partition, as a result of the displacement of both Hindus and Muslims, but it had been small in scale.

Sikhs, mainly from the Punjab, had also arrived in Britain, looking for work in the west London borough of Southall, which quickly became a hub of the subcontinent. Indian migrants created their own networks for buying and supplying the corner shops which required punishingly long hours, and the restaurants which had almost instantly become part of the ‘British’ way of life. By 1970 there were more than two thousand Indian (especially Punjabi) restaurants, and curry became the single most popular dish in the UK within the following generation. Other migrants went into textile production and the rag trade, growing relatively rich compared with most of their British ‘neighbours’, who were (perhaps naturally enough) somewhat jealous of the people they viewed as ‘newcomers’.

So immigration continued through the fifties without any great debate. Much of it was not black but European, mostly migrant workers from Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Italy, France and other countries who were positively welcomed during the years of skill and manpower shortages. There was a particularly hefty Italian migration producing a first-generation Italian-speaking community of around a hundred thousand by 1971, adding to earlier immigration going back to the 1870s, and even as far back as the 1400s. Migrants who moved to the UK before the Second World War settled in different parts of Britain, including the south Wales valleys, where they set up bracchi shops selling coffee, ice cream and soda among other goods. Their links within the catering trade and subsequent competition encouraged dispersion. Chain migration led to the settlement of groups coming from the same area in particular locations, similar to the patterns experienced by Welsh migrants to England in the inter-war period.

After 1945, the destination for the mass-recruited Italian migrants, coming almost exclusively from the rural areas in southern Italy, were towns where industrial settlements required unskilled labour, like the brick-making industries of Bedford and Peterborough, or rural areas needing labour for agriculture. In later decades, as Italian migration to Britain declined, the proportion of migrants from the centre and north of Italy increased at the expense of that from the impoverished south. Areas associated with the mass recruitment of the 1950s witnessed the formation of close-knit communities of people whose personal histories were similar, who came from the same region or neighbouring regions, often from the same village. The home dialects were often mutually intelligible and therefore played a great role in community interaction. It was often a crystallised form of dialect, that, outside its natural environment, did not follow the same evolution as the dialect back home. Instead, these dialects were heavily loaded with English borrowings. Even something as simple as a ‘cup of tea’ was usually offered in English, as it represented a habit acquired in the new environment.

Throughout the 1950s, there was constant and heavy migration from Ireland, mainly into the construction industry, three-quarters of a million in the early fifties and two million by the early seventies, producing little political response except in the immediate aftermath of IRA bombings. There was substantial Maltese immigration which caught the public attention for a time due to the violent gang wars in London between rival Maltese families in the extortion and prostitution business (many of them were originally Sicilian). In addition, there were many ‘refugees’ from both sides of the Greek-Turkish Cypriot conflict, including one of my best friends in Birmingham, a second-generation Greek Cypriot whose family owned a restaurant in their adopted city and continued to attend Orthodox services. Again, apart from the enthusiastic adoption of plate-smashing and moussaka-throwing in such restaurants, there was little discernible public concern.

The first sizeable Greek Cypriot group arrived in the inter-war years and was composed of young men in search of education and work. On the outbreak of the Second World War, most of them were conscripted as ‘overseas nationals’ and served as British soldiers in various parts of the world. After the war, more significant numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and suitable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the subsequent struggles and invasions. By the 1980s, the Greek Cypriot population in Britain had reached two hundred thousand. Although there were small Greek communities in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, by far the largest proportion of the Greek speech community was concentrated in London. In the national context, the numbers of Greeks was relatively small. Within the capital, however, Greeks formed a significant minority, and the number of recorded Greek-speakers there only began to decrease in the 1980s, though still constituting one of the largest bilingual groups in Inner London schools.

Greek Cypriots, although leaving behind a sometimes bloody conflict, left their island homes mainly as economic migrants. The majority of them came from lower socio-economic groups, setting out with high aspirations, confident about their hard-working nature and grounded in the strong sense of solidarity binding them to their compatriots. Once in Britain, they worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, hairdressing and grocery-retailing, as well as in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries. In the villages of Cyprus, most women’s work had been confined to the household and the fields. In Britain, though still undervalued and underpaid, a substantial number of women went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small family run factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piece-work rates.

Mother-tongue teaching was provided by the Greek Orthodox Church in the early 1950s. Increasingly, however, this role was taken over by various parents’ groups. The longest-standing of these is the Greek Parents’ Association in Haringey, which dates back to 1955. Other parts of London and the country slowly took their lead from this, and classes were established in Coventry in 1963, and much later, in 1979, in Bradford. Children spent between one and four hours per week in these community-run classes, with the average attendance in the region of three hours. A pressing issue in these classes has been the place of the Cypriot dialect. While parents wanted their children to learn standard modern Greek (SMG), many British-trained teachers felt that the Cypriot dialect should also have a place as a medium of instruction.

Migration from Turkey and Cyprus followed very different patterns. Cypriot settlement preceded emigration from Turkey, dating back to the 1950s when the British government was actively seeking labour. In the 1960s, the birth of the Republic of Cyprus and the subsequent fighting between Greek and Turkish communities further encouraged migration to Britain, often in a bid to gain entry before the enactment of increasingly stringent immigration legislation. With the occupation of the northern part of the island by Turkey in 1974, a further nine thousand Greek and Turkish Cypriot refugees fled to Britain. It is impossible to tell how many of these came from each ethnic group since only place of birth information was recorded on settlement in the UK, not ethnic identity. Migration from Turkey itself only began in the 1970s. Cypriot Turkish has traditionally been accorded low status, often dismissed as ‘incorrect’ or as ‘pidgin Turkish’, although Turkish Cypriots have defended the legitimacy of their own variety and, since 1974, have resisted linguistic assimilation from mainland Turkey. 

Chinese migration, mainly from the impoverished agricultural hinterland of Hong Kong, can be measured by the vast rise in Chinese fish-and-chip shops, takeaways and restaurants since the mid-fifties, when there were a few hundred, to more than four thousand by the beginning of the seventies. Their owners were speakers of the Cantonese dialect.

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A Jamaican immigrant seeking lodgings in Birmingham in 1955

Thus, if there were clear rules about how to migrate quietly to Britain, they would have stated first, ‘be white’, and second, ‘if you can’t be white, be small in number’, and third, ‘if all else fails, feed the brutes’. The West Indian migration, at least until the mid-eighties, failed each rule. It was mainly male, young and coming not to open restaurants but to work for wages which could, in part, be sent back home. Some official organisations, including the National Health Service and London Transport, went on specific recruiting drives for drivers, conductors, nurses and cleaners, with advertisements in Jamaica. Most of the population shift, however, was driven by the migrants themselves, desperate for a better life, particularly once the popular alternative migration to the USA was closed down in 1952. The Caribbean islands, dependent on sugar or tobacco for most employment, were going through hard times. As word was passed back about job opportunities, albeit in difficult surroundings, immigration grew fast to about 36,000 people a year by the late fifties. The scale of the change was equivalent to the total non-white population of 1951 arriving in Britain every two years. The black and Asian population rose to 117,000 by 1961. Although these were still comparatively small numbers, from the first they were concentrated in particular localities, rather than being dispersed. Different West Indian island groups clustered in different parts of London and the English provincial cities – Jamaicans in the south London areas of Brixton and Clapham,  Trinidadians in west London’s Notting Hill, islanders from Nevis in Leicester, people from St Vincent in High Wycombe, and so on.

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405,000 people from the Caribbean migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1958, mostly single men.

The means and manners by which these people migrated to Britain had a huge impact on the later condition of post-war society and deserves special, detailed analysis. The fact that so many of the first migrants were young men who found themselves living without wives, mothers and children inevitably created a wilder atmosphere than they were accustomed to in their island homes. They were short of entertainment as well as short of the social control of ordinary family living. The chain of generational influence was broken at the same time as the male strut was liberated. Drinking dens and gambling, the use of marijuana, ska and blues clubs were the inevitable results. Early black communities in Britain tended to cluster where the first arrivals had settled, which meant in the blighted inner cities. There, street prostitution was more open and rampant in the fifties than it was later so that it is hardly surprising that young men away from home for the first time often formed relationships with prostitutes, and that some became pimps themselves. This was what fed the popular press hunger for stories to confirm their prejudices about black men stealing ‘our women’. The upbeat, unfamiliar music, illegal drinking and drugs and the sexual appetites of the young immigrants all combined to paint a lurid picture of a new underclass.

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In the 1960s, women and children joined their men: 328,000 more West Indians settled in Britain.

More important in the longer-term, a rebelliousness was sown in black families which would be partly tamed only when children and spouses began to arrive in large numbers in the sixties, and the Pentecostal churches reclaimed at least some of their own, sending out their gospel groups to entertain as well as evangelise among the previously lily-white but Welsh-immigrant-led nonconformist chapels in the early seventies. Housing was another crucial part of the story. For the immigrants of the fifties, accommodation was necessarily privately rented, since access to council homes was based on a long list of existing residents. So the early black immigrants, like the earlier immigrant groups before them, were cooped up in crowded, often condemned Victorian terrace properties in west London, Handsworth in west Birmingham, or the grimy back-streets of Liverpool and Leeds.

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Landlords and landladies were often reluctant to rent to blacks. Once a few houses had immigrants in them, a domino effect would clear streets as white residents sold up and shipped out. The 1957 Rent Act, initiated by Enoch Powell, in his free-market crusade, perversely made the situation worse by allowing rents to rise sharply, but only when tenants of unfurnished rooms were removed to allow for furnished lettings. Powell had intended to instigate a period during which rent rises could be cushioned, but its unintended consequence was that unscrupulous landlords such as the notorious Peter Rachman, himself an immigrant, bought up low-value properties for letting, ejecting the existing tenants and replacing them with new tenants, packed in at far higher rents. Thuggery and threats generally got rid of the old, often elderly, white tenants, to be replaced by the new black tenants who were desperate for somewhere to live and therefore prepared to pay the higher rents they were charged. The result was the creation of instant ghettos in which three generations of black British would soon be crowded together. It was the effects of Powell’s housing policies of the fifties which led directly to the Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth riots of the eighties.

 

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Yet these were not, of course, the only direct causes of the racial tensions and explosions which were to follow. The others lay in the reactions of the white British, or rather the white English. One Caribbean writer claimed, with not a touch of irony, that he had never met a single English person with colour prejudice. Once he had walked the entire length of a street, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid. If only we could find the “neighbour” we could solve the whole problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble. Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country. Numerous testimonies by immigrants and in surveys of the time show how hostile people were to the idea of having black or Asian neighbours. The trades unions bristled against blacks coming in to take jobs, possibly at lower rates of pay, just as they had complained about Irish or Welsh migrants a generation earlier. Union leaders regarded as impeccably left-wing lobbied governments to keep out black workers. For a while, it seemed that they would be successful enough by creating employment ghettos as well as housing ones, until black workers gained a toe-hold in the car-making and other manufacturing industries where the previous generations of immigrants had already fought battles for acceptance against the old craft unionists and won.

Only a handful of MPs campaigned openly against immigration. Even Enoch Powell would, at this stage, only raise the issue in private meetings, though he had been keen enough, as health minister, to make use of migrant labour. The anti-immigrant feeling was regarded as not respectable, not something that a decent politician was prepared to talk about. For the Westminster élite talked in well-meaning generalities of the immigrants as being fellow subjects of the Crown. Most of the hostility was at the level of the street and popular culture, usually in the form of disguised discrimination of shunning, through to the humiliation of door-slamming and on to more overtly violent street attacks.

White gangs of ‘Teddy boys’, like the one depicted below, went ‘nigger-hunting’ or ‘black-burying’, chalking Keep Britain White on walls. Their main motivation stemmed, not from any ideological influence, but from a sense of young male competition and territory-marking. They were often the poor white children of the remaining poor white tenants in the same areas being ‘taken over’ by the migrants.  As the black British sociologist, Stuart Hall, has written, in the ‘society of affluence’,  which threw up paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotyped remedies, as was demonstrated by the following respondent to a BBC radio enquiry of the late fifties:

It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.               

‘They’ were, of course, West Indian or Asian sub-continental immigrants. A motor-cycle lad who said, of his parents, they just stay awake until I get in at night, and once I’m in they’re happy,… but every time I go out I know they’re on edge, talked casually about going down to Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. All this came to a head at Notting Hill the next year, 1958, with the now infamous riots which took place there, though the anti-immigrant violence actually started in St Ann’s, a poor district of distant Nottingham, near my birthplace, and spread to the capital the following day.

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In my next post, I want to deal with these events in more detail. For now, I will pause with the paradox of the year in which I was born, 1957, just forty days before Harold Macmillan told the good burghers of Bedford, no doubt some of them Italian immigrants, that most of our people have never had it so good. Today, it feels as if the British, myself included, have spent the last sixty years trapped inside that paradox, that illusionary ‘bubble’. To paraphrase Stuart Hall’s commentary, combining it with the well-known ‘East End’ song, we have been blowing bubbles, but they always seem to burst, just like our dreams. When the mists and myths clear, we are still the same country we were born into sixty years ago. The Sixties’ ‘Social Revolution’ never really happened. The poor are not only still with us, but they are there in greater numbers. The ‘economic miracle’ has dissipated, and the one percent of the adult population who owned four-fifths of all the wealth still do. The ‘Macmillenium’ is long since over, as this millennial generation is the first since the Industrial Revolution not to have as good as its predecessors, let alone better.

 

Main sources:

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

veres-palne

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.

1956 and All That Remains: A Matter of Interpretation(s); Part Two.   Leave a comment

1989-2006: Revolution restored?…

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By the Spring of 1989, there were new men and women in the leadership of the leading Communist Party, or HSWP, who were ready to accelerate the process of change and, literally, to resurrect Imre Nagy and his legacy. BBC Correspondent, John Simpson had first met Imre Pozsgay in 1983:

He talked like an Austrian socialist. On one occasion, Kádár had referred to him as ‘impertinent’… Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time… an intellectual by instinct and training, he had worked his way up through the system, until in May 1988 he and those who thought like him in the Party were strong enough to call a special congress and vote Kádár out of power.

Kádár’s place as First Secretary was taken by Károly Grósz, and Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo, and soon the dominant ‘reformer’ in the leadership. The process of political change was speeded up and, following the appointment of an historical commission in the autumn, it was Pozsgay who announced in February 1989 that the events of 1956 had been a popular uprising rather than an attempt at counter-revolution. Although Kádár had been replaced as the leading figure, he was still a figurehead, and this still remained the most delicate subject in Hungarian politics, and the Party Central Committee did not go as far as Pozsgay. However, in June 1989, permission was given to exhume the bodies of Imre Nagy and the other ministers of the revolutionary government. Their unmarked graves had been found in waste ground. On the anniversary of his execution in 1958, 16 June, their coffins lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. The honouring of Nagy and his colleagues in this way was a turning point in the accelerating changes of 1989-90, but it was also a matter of setting straight the historical record in the public memory, since it confirmed the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the 1956 events and expunged forever, at least from the official lexicon, the ‘counter-revolutionary’ tag far more effectively than any historical commission or mere legal rehabilitation could do. In a very public way, Hungary had at last come to terms with its past, banishing the shadow of a third of a century.

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However, acts of commemoration do not, of themselves, write or rewrite history. Historians do that, and they have continued to engage with the events of 1956 in the context of Hungary’s twenty-year transition into a pluralist ‘republic’ and, more recently, the advent of an authoritarian-nationalist parliamentary ‘régime’. The primacy of politics over history is evident in the continuation of widely variant interpretations of the events, especially in the past decade between the fiftieth and the sixtieth anniversaries.

János Kádár remained as a token president until his death later that summer. Though he was not involved in any major decision-making, still no-one dared to oust him. He became seriously ill, beginning with a stroke the day after he had lost power, in May 1988, though he had always been in good health before. He had become increasingly paralysed over the following year. On 12 April 1989 there was a closed meeting of the Central Committee of the Party, where the most important issues of the reforms were to be discussed. Kádár was not supposed to be there, and Grósz even asked him not to attend, but he turned up to speak, though not even able to write down what he wanted to say. He had already been questioned for months by journalists sent to him by Grósz, about his role in the events of 1956. The speech Kádár gave at the Central Committee provides evidence of his state of mind as a tortured soul. He was allowed to speak, although it was agreed that the recording would never be made public. However, it was leaked to the press, possibly by the reform wing, or by the chairman himself. The following extracts are what can be deciphered from it. Referring to the events surrounding his disappearance from the Soviet Embassy on 1 November, he commented:

… I was at once in a company where my ‘mania’ was sure not to prevail… I don’t remember how many people there were there (in the meeting with the Soviet leaders)… I misunderstood something…

What he seems to imply by this is that he misunderstood what the Soviets were asking him when they asked him if he wanted to be the First Secretary and whether he would restore order in Hungary. After all, he had just become the effective party leader after Gérő’s departure, albeit on a temporary basis. Yet, might he not have asked what ‘restoring order’ meant? Perhaps he did, but still agreed to their proposal for fear that, if he didn’t, he would end up in Siberia, not Szolnok:

Tell me, then, what was I supposed to do… when my most important aim then was to get safely to Szolnok by any possible way… no matter who surrounded me… to get there?

And I had other duties too… I assumed responsibility for those who were staying at the (Yugoslav) Embassy… But I, naive man, I assumed responsibility because I thought that my request, that two people should make a declaration, so that legally the people of their rank could not refer to it. Historically, I see everything differently now but, according to their wish at that time… The demand of those two (Nagy and Losonczy) was that they be allowed to go home freely.  I couldn’t fulfil that because… /voice fades/.

At the time, Kádár allowed the events of the kidnapping of those seeking asylum in the Yugoslav Embassy to be explained as the sole responsibility of the Soviets. It was also the Soviets alone who had arranged the deportation of the group to Romania with the agreement of the Bucharest leaders, he claimed, and this was commonly believed to be the case into the 1990s. But, since then, historians have found this to be untrue, especially referring to Yugoslav evidence consisting of primary sources consisting of correspondence and official papers, referred to in earlier blogs. We also know that Kádár himself planned the deportations as well as the evidence to be presented at the trial of Imre Nagy. He had even made the political (central) committee vote for the death penalty for Nagy and the others who were executed. An outline of the trial had been made in Moscow, but the detail was added in Budapest, as in the previous Rajk trial.

Commenting on the definition of the Uprising as a ‘fascist’ counter-revolution, he had this to say in his ‘last speech’ of 1989:

If it was not a counter-revolution, I don’t know what we can refer to it as.

His ‘decision’ to refer to the events of 23-30 October as such was, it is now argued, also made largely under Soviet pressure, since they wanted to ensure that he could not turn round and characterise their ‘military assistance’ as an aggressive act of invasion when it suited him to change sides again and rejoin the revisionists. They knew that if he used the word ‘fascist’ the West, at a point so close to the second world war, would be given enough justification for non-intervention. However, it is also clear that Kádár believed in his statement made at the time, and continued to believe it in his final speech. Referencing the events taking place  on the streets, especially the lynchings of 30 October, what he heard on the radio, what went on at party meetings, Kádár argued that there was no other way of referring to the entire events of that week. He also pointed out that the 1957 Central Political Committee indirectly voted for the execution of Imre Nagy and others and that (somewhat improbably) those now sitting in front of him had been participants in this decision.

In making this ‘nightmarish’ speech, flitting between his limited consciousness of both 1956 and 1989, Kádár has been likened to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The forest started walking towards him and the borderline between fantasy and reality dissolved. Nevertheless, he concluded with some cogent, if jumbled, points in his own defence:

I will answer the most immediate charge, that which torments me most… why I do not speak up. My doctor tells me that I shouldn’t make this unscripted speech. But I can’t remain passive and unable to answer. I can’t stand that, it makes me sick. And what do we remember? The platform freedom-fighters… fought with arms… I declare, at my own risk, even if I do make mistakes, I will speak out because I am a very old man with many diseases, so I don’t care if I get shot…

I apologise…

It is not my fault that it’s only after thirty-two years such a question has arisen, because we have had so many party congresses and meetings. Nobody ever criticised my view that the uprising became a counter-revolution… I realised it on the 28th (October) when, irrespective of clothes, skin colour, or anything else…  unarmed people were killed in a pogrom… They were killed well before Imre Nagy and his friends…

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By the end of May 1989, long sections of the fence along the Austrian border had been removed (supposedly for repair), and János Kádár had been relieved of all his offices. He died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated by the Supreme Court. Kádár was buried on 14 July, in a state funeral which reminded the same dramatist of the Danish courtiers standing by the coffin of Claudius, the usurper, who had reigned for thirty-three years.

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Bob Dent, the British journalist and author of a book about 1956, originally written in English for the 2006 anniversary, and recently translated into Hungarian for the sixtieth commemoration, has also written his recollections of how the book was first received. Many of the journalists who requested interviews were interested to know how, as a foreigner, not even an émigré Magyar, he had dared to write about Hungary’s ‘sacred history’ of 1956. Of course, it was soon obvious that most of the journalists had not read the book! By examining and presenting conflicting versions of the same events, and by trying to give an appreciation of differing accounts of 1956, the book became a work about history itself and, by implication, about how history can be very selective and how, therefore, the past can be used for different purposes. In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith is made to repeat the party slogan, who controls the past controls the future. Dent re-phrases this and applies it to Hungary:

Who controls the present controls the past.

When they examine the versions of 1956 which have been produced since 1988-90, historians can witness to the truth of this statement. When I was shown around Hungary in these years, one of my hosts was a Catholic priest, who looked as if he was old enough to remember the events, being at least fifteen years older than myself (I was born in 1957). When I asked him what he remembered, he told me that if I really wanted to know what life was like, I should look no further than Orwell’s great book. That was what his Catholic family had experienced, he said. Even though I had also met previously with an underground Catholic resistance group, it was difficult to envisage the level of persecution, until I read more about the events, and talked to many other participants. Then I re-read 1984, and began to understand what Stalinism meant in 1948-56. Until 1989, the people of Eastern Europe had lost control of their own future, and with it their own past. Now they had control back over both.

The official view of 1956 during the Kádár era had focused on the atrocities which took place, especially the lynchings and shootings which took place after the siege of the Party’s headquarters in Köztársaság tér on 30 October. The entire uprising became associated with those terrible events which some argued revealed the true face of the uprising. It was powerful propaganda, constantly emphasised in books and essays.

After 1989 the view became more positive and there was a tendency to play down the atrocities of 30th. In many accounts they were simply left out, as if forgotten. They didn’t fit the new image of the new republic. They muddied the waters. They had contributed towards the ‘quick’ acceptance and consolidation of the Kádár régime, not only by the Party faithful, but also by a broad cross-section of the general population as well. The problem with this approach is that it has left the field open to those who have highlighted what went on in the square for the purposes of condemning the entire uprising negatively as a ‘counter-revolution’.

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Bob Dent goes on to point out that confronting the matter head-on is, of course, not easy, involving not only the issue of ‘mass violence’, but also that of revolutionary violence itself, and that of the inherent ‘hatred’ in the uprising. In 1991, a symbolic foundation stone was placed in the square referring to all the martyrs and victims of 1956. Dent, however, argues that if any kind of monument of atonement or reconciliation is ever to be raised… the difficult issues of 1956 will have to be tackled first. On the 38th anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy, President Árpád Göncz gave a speech in which he stated:

Everyone has the right to interpret 1956, but no-one has the right to expropriate 1956. Only the knowledge of the undistorted truth can mellow the one-time confrontation into peace.

The meaning of these words has still to sink in more than two decades later. Attempts to ‘expropriate’ 1956 have continued unabated, as exemplified by the different political parties and veterans’ organisations holding separate commemorations on 23 October on the fiftieth anniversary in 2006. Dent is convinced that we should all be wary when someone claims that his or her ’56 is the only ’56. He finds it strange that, following the multi-party elections of 1990, the newly elected members of parliament considered it to be their first duty to enact into law the historical significance of 1956 as an event that can only be compared with the anti-Habsburg struggle of 1848-9. Does it mean, he asks, that if someone were to compare 1956 with, say, the anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt uprising they would be breaking the law? He points out, with some justification, that the unfortunate result of the confusing variety of interpretations of 1956 is the withdrawal of interest, that I myself have witnessed, of the majority of those who were not directly involved, especially those  among the unborn generations. Surveys have repeatedly shown that knowledge of, and interest in, the events of 1956, is particularly low among those having no direct experience of them.

In some respect this is surprising, given the momentous nature of those events and the fact that they involved, in the main, Hungarians fighting against fellow Hungarians. There were no major engagements with Soviet forces until the second intervention of the Red Army. This indisputable fact challenges the widely accepted, yet simplistic view that 1956 can only    be understood as a struggle of the united Hungarian nation against Soviet rule. The results of a 2003 public opinion survey about attitudes to 1956 showed that sixteen per cent of respondents still held the view that the events constituted a ‘counter-revolution’, the official view of the Kádár régime, fourteen years after it was discredited. Of the other 84%, 53% were content with the term ‘revolution’, while 14% preferred the term ‘people’s uprising’ and 13% saw it as a ‘freedom struggle’. On the issue of terminology, Dent concludes that the 1956 events constituted a ‘counter-revolution’ in the Kádár era due to:

…the destruction of communist symbols and attacks on party buildings, the ‘fascist’ atrocities which took place, and the belief that the underlying orientation of the events was towards a restoration of capitalist relations of production.

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None of these, in his view, can be substantiated sufficiently to warrant the label being applied overall. Though red stars and hammers and sickles were torn down from buildings and cut out from national flags and banners, many Party members participated in the events, from the rank and file among the street fighters to the workers’ councils, often neglected by recent historians, to Imre Nagy and his government ministers and generals. The attacks on the Party were attacks on its monopolies and methods, not on the basic concepts of socialism and workers’ control of the means of production. It is understandable, however, that some in the Party leadership thought that this was the case since, in line with Leninist precepts, they thought that the Party had to uphold its power as the leading representative of working class interests. Even the leaders of other parties involved in the short-lived Nagy government, like Béla Kovács, of the Smallholders’ Party, warned their supporters against any idea of a restoration of landowners and capitalists:

No-one should dream of going back to the world of aristocrats, bankers and capitalists. That world is definitely gone!

These words of Kovács, appointed minister of agriculture by Nagy, were echoed in countless proclamations issued at the time, most notably by the workers’ councils. The factory is ours and should remain so under workers’ management was a common theme. The irony here is that, although the revolutionary element in the events of October-December 1956 was best represented in many district, town and village councils, and most notably by workers’ councils, it is exactly these councils which have been ignored in the recent re-writing of the history of the uprising and resistance to Soviet control of these months. For instance, The Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents, edited by Csaba Békés et. al. (2002), contains 118 documents, not one of which is a workers’ council document, probably because the editors were primarily concerned with the issues of Hungarian national-level politics and the country’s international relations.

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Interestingly, one public figure who did highlight the theme on a number of occasions before his death in 2014 was Árpád Göncz, an activist in 1956, subsequently imprisoned before becoming President in 1990. During his ten-year presidency, Göncz highlighted the role of the workers’ councils on a number of occasions. In his 1992 speech for the 36th anniversary, he included the following perceptive words:

The multi-party parliamentary system of western Europe hardly tolerates the type of direct democracy which made our revolution victorious via the directly elected workers’ and revolutionary councils controlled by workplace and residential communities.

The speech was not fully given, as Göncz was interrupted on 23 October by noisy right-wing demonstrators. As a result, however, the content of the speech was widely published in the Hungarian press, and later in a collection (by Európa Press).

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Even after leaving office, Göncz continued to speak and write about the contribution the workers made through their councils, claiming that their role was ‘decisive’, adding that the demand for workers’ ownership had actually been achieved in October 1956. In an interview for Népszava on 22 October 2004, he described the formation of the workers’ councils as one of the most important steps of the revolution. For other post-1989 public figures, as well as for recent historians in Hungary and elsewhere, the paradoxical notion of the councils as ‘anti-Soviet soviets’ has been difficult to digest, so that the tendency has been to ignore them.

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Dent and others have tended to avoid the issue of definition of the events of 1956 by using the contemporary English language label ‘Uprising’, which is how it was referred to in the international press and at the UN. When it became the official definition of the Party in 1989, however, as a ‘people’s uprising’, Dent coined a new term, ‘social explosion’ to describe the events. Unfortunately, the vagueness of the term means that it adds very little value to the coinage of historians, even if it helps, temporarily at least, to avoid political labelling. Progressive Hungarians, including exiles, have always referred to it by the same word used for the other ‘revolutions’  in Hungarian history (1848, 1918), forradalom. This is where I believe it belongs.

In his useful book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976; 1988, Fontana), Raymond Williams established two key concepts related to Revolution. The first, the seventeenth-century concept, was that of the image of the wheel turning, to emphasise the turning upside-down of an established political order. The second, developing out of the revolutions of 1789-1848, was the sense of the…

… bringing about a wholly new social order… greatly strengthened by the socialist movement, and this led to some complexity in the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism. From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order… and the more limited modification or reform of an existing order. The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also usually an argument about ends… one of the crucial senses of the word, early and late, restorative or innovative, had been simply (to indicate) important or fundamental change. 

Interestingly, Williams does not include a reference to ‘counter-revolution’ (ellenforradalom in Hungarian), suggesting that it was purely a Stalinist construct and not one, as a Marxist himself, he considered important to include even in the definition of the main word. He does, however, include a definition of reactionary as an antonym of revolutionary since the nineteenth century. From these definitions, I believe that, from a historical perspective, it should not be so difficult to interpret the events of October 1956 as a revolution, and the reactionary measures of November-December, taken by the Soviets and its Kádár régime in Hungary, as a counter-revolution leading to the restoration of a communist dictatorship, albeit in an ultimately more benign form.

During the fiftieth anniversary of 2006, quite predictably, politicians and public figures made selective use of the collective memory of 1956 to bolster their positions and attack those of their opponents. One idea which re-emerged involved the notion that the changes of 1989-90 were the eventual realisation of the ideals of 1956. Dent challenges this view by arguing that 1989 involved elements which had not been present in 1956. What made the events of 1956 truly revolutionary was the coral growth of factory-based workers’ councils and locally based revolutionary committees all over the country. The first workers’ council to appear was established in Diósgyor, in the industrial northeast, on 22 October, the eve of the beginning of events in the capital, and the last to dissolve (itself) was at Csepel on 11 January 1957. As Göncz commented, these bodies represented a form of direct democracy which was different from both the western parliamentary systems and the centralised, monolithic system modelled by the USSR and imposed on its satellite states. This was also, above all, was what represented a new order and fashioned the events of 1956-57 into a revolution.

As an undergraduate, I remember reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and especially her writing on the Kronstadt Uprising and the Hungarian Revolution. She described how workers’ councils, wherever they have appeared in history,

… were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies and their leaders from right to left, and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists.

Demands for privatisation and the development of a free-market economy in 1989-90 went far beyond the demands of 1956, which were for workers’ control and ownership. Neither were the demands for a re-orientation of the country as a central European state in 1956, looking both east and west, in any way comparable with the interest in joining the European Economic Community, not even ‘born’ then. The demand for neutrality in 1956 was also a long way from envisaging future membership of NATO, though the crushing of the early bid for independence did motivate Hungarian leaders to move quickly towards full membership in the 1990s. Despite this, their aim was not achieved until 1999. The attempts to ‘merge’ past and present are well-expressed in these photos…

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Secondary Sources:

Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa.

Bob Dent (2008), Inside Hungary from Outside. Budapest: Európa; especially chapter nine, My Very Own 1956.

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

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

Margaret Rooke (1986), The Hungarian Revolt of 1956 – János Kádár: traitor or saviour. London: Longman.

 

 

More Portraits and Documents on Palestine, Zionism & Israel   1 comment

The British Labour Party & Palestine-Israel in the Past, 1919-49

This is my third contribution to the debate on anti-Semitism and Zionism in the Labour Party with reference to the documentary evidence of the early twentieth century. The Proclamation of Independence of the state of Israel was published on 14 May 1948, almost exactly 68 years ago. The Provisional State Council was the forerunner of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The British Mandate was terminated the following day, which was also the day on which the armed forces of Transjordan, Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries entered Palestine. The Proclamation began with the Biblical claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, though it is worth noting that a state or kingdom of Israel only existed in the northern part of these lands for about four centuries before the Roman occupation of the time of Christ, Judea and Samaria being the other main territories in which the Jewish people lived. The diaspora of the Jews around the Mediterranean had also begun well before the first century, although it accelerated following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in circa 70 A.D.  The Proclamation  went on to trace the development of the Zionist movement from the First Zionist Congress of 1897, which was inspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of The Jewish State, which proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national revival in their own country. This right was acknowledged by the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, and re-affirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations following the post-World War One peace treaties which established the League. The Mandate, given over to British administration in 1920, gave explicit international recognition to the historic connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and the right to reconstitute their National Home. 

Above: Faisal IBN-Hussein, King of Greater Syria, 1920 & Iraq, 1921-33 (on the left with the Arab delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, including T E Lawrence, third from right).

During the Paris Peace Conference, which commenced in the Spring of 1919, relations between the Arab Delegation, led by Faisal IBN-Hussein, and the Zionists, led by Felix Frankfurter, were very cordial. Feisal wrote to Frankfurter at the beginning of March to reiterate what he had often been able to say to Dr Weizmann in Arabia and Europe:

We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in race, having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.

We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted… by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home… The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist… neither can be a real success without the other.

People less informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for cooperation of the Arabs and Zionists have been trying to exploit the local difficulties that must necessarily arise in Palestine in the early stages of our movements. Some of them have… misrepresented your aims to the Arab peasantry, and our aims to the Jewish peasantry, with the result that interested parties have been able to make capital out of what they call our differences… these differences are not on questions of principle but on matters of detail such as must inevitably occur in every contact of neighbouring peoples, and are easily adjusted by mutual goodwill.

Felix Frankfurter adopted a similarly conciliatory tone in his reply on behalf of the Zionist Organisation:

We knew… that the aspirations of the Arab and the Jewish peoples were parallel, that each aspired to reestablish its nationality in its own homeland, each making its own distinctive contribution to civilisation, each seeking its own peaceful mode of life.

The Zionist leaders and the Jewish people for whom they speak have watched with satisfaction the spiritual vigour of the Arab movement. Themselves seeking justice, they are anxious that the national aims of the Arab people be confirmed and safeguarded by the Peace Conference.

We know from your acts and your past utterances that the Zionist movement – in other words the aims of the Jewish people – had your support and the support of the Arab people for whom you speak. These aims are now before the Peace Conference as definite proposals of the Zionist Organisation. We are happy indeed that you consider these proposals “moderate and proper,” and that we have in you a staunch supporter for their realisation. For both the Arab and the Jewish peoples there are difficulties ahead – difficulties that challenge the united statesmanship of Arab and Jewish leaders. For it is no easy task to rebuild two great civilisations that have been suffering oppression and misrule for centuries… The Arabs and Jews are neighbours in the territory; we cannot but live side by side as friends… 

Above: Chaim Weizmann & Felix Frankfurter

As an essential part of their quest for a homeland in Palestine the Jews sought the active support of the British Government delegation and, in particular, that of the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur J Balfour, author of the 1917 Declaration which had given them hope that this would become a reality. In a memo by Felix Frankfurter of an interview with him and Justice Brandeis in Balfour’s Paris apartment on 24 June 1919, the Foreign Secretary is recorded as expressing entire agreement with three conditions that stated:

First that Palestine should be the Jewish homeland and not merely that there should be a Jewish homeland in Palestine… Secondly there must be economic elbow room for a Jewish Palestine… That meant adequate boundaries, not merely a small garden within Palestine… Thirdly… that the future Jewish Palestine must have control of the land and the natural resources which are at the heart of a sound economic life.  

However, Balfour pointed out the difficulties which confronted the British, especially the fact that Faisal was a ‘comrade in arms’ and that he interpreted British action and words as a promise of either Arab independence or Arab rule under British protection. Nevertheless, he added:

No statesman could have been more sympathetic… with the underlying philosophy and aims of Zionism as they were stated…, nor more eager that the necessary conditions should be secured at the hands of the Peace Conference and of Great Britain to assure the realisation of the Zionist programme.

However, as opposition to Zionism grew among the Arab population under British rule in the early 1920s, a new policy was drafted by Winston Churchill, then the British Colonial Secretary, which, while not explicitly opposing the idea of a Jewish state, redeemed the Balfour promise in depreciated currency, to quote a contemporary British source. Churchill’s White Paper of June 1922 made it clear that The Balfour Declaration had been subjected to exaggerated interpretations such as given in the phrase “as Jewish as England is English” in connection with the intentions of the British government. This, Churchill stated flatly, was not the aim of HM’s Government, which was neither contemplating the disappearance or subordination of the Arabic population, language, or culture in Palestine. He reminded those who suggested this to be the case, among both Arabs and Jews, that the Declaration did not state that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home,  but that such a Home should be found in Palestine. This clearly contradicted the conditions set down in Frankfurter’s memo of Balfour’s Paris interview, but Churchill went on to quote the resolution of the Zionist Organisation’s Congress held at Carlsbad in September 1921, which had expressed…

… the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development. 

Churchill also clarified that the Zionist Organisation was to have no special role in the running of the administration of Palestine under the British Mandate and that the citizens of Palestine, whatever their ethnicity or religion, would remain Palestinian. Jewish immigration was to continue in keeping with the economic capacity of the country. The immigrants should not be a burden to the people of Palestine as a whole, nor should they deprive any section of the current population of their employment. Against this background, by the mid-twenties, there were those within the Labour Party, like Beatrice Webb, who began to question the aims of the Zionist movement:

… I admire Jews and dislike Arabs. But the Zionist movement seems to me a gross violation of the right of the native to remain where he was born and his father and grandfather were born – if there is such a right. To talk about the return of the Jew to the land of his inheritance after an absence of two thousand years seems to me sheer… hypocritical nonsense. From whom were descended those Russian and Polish Jews? The principle which is really being asserted is the principle of selecting races for particular territories according to some ‘peculiar needs or particular fitness’. Or it may be some ideal of communal life to be realised by subsidised migration. But this process of artificially creating new communities of immigrants, brought from many parts of the world, is rather hard on the indigenous natives!

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Clearly, Sidney Webb (pictured right) shared views of his wife, Beatrice on Zionism, as five years later he was in the first majority Labour government of 1929-31, Sidney Webb as Colonial Secretary, by then under the title ‘Lord Passfield’. Following the Arab riots of 1929, the ‘Passfield White Paper’ was published in 1930, urging restrictions on immigration of Jews, and on land sales to them. When this was bitterly denounced by the Zionist leaders as a violation of the Mandate, Ramsay MacDonald wrote to Chaim Weizmann in February 1931 to reassure him of the good faith of HM’s Government. Although it did not openly repudiate the Passfield Report, the PM’s letter was rejected by the Arabs as the “Black Paper” as it clearly defined the mainstream Labour view of Zionism. The Report had been widely criticised for making ‘injurious allegations’ against the Jewish people and Jewish labour organisations. Today, we might describe these as being anti-Semitic. Quite clearly, as leader of the party and PM, MacDonald felt he had to act quickly to allay these concerns. In his speech in the House of Commons on 3 April 1930, MacDonald had given his ‘double undertaking’ to the Jewish and non-Jewish populations of Palestine (see my previous post) which contained a promise to ‘do equal justice’ to both. This, he now declared, was the most effectual means of furthering the establishment of a national home for the Jews.

He emphasised that the government did not contemplate immigration controls beyond those introduced by Churchill in 1922, governed purely by economic considerations. There was to be a continuation of labour scheduling of Jewish wage-earning immigrants for private works which depended mainly on Jewish capital and the availability of Jewish labour. Public works were to be organised on the basis of private Jewish contributions to public revenue, to allow for a ‘due share’ of employment for Jewish workers. Otherwise, account was to be taken of unemployment among both Jews and Arabs. However, The Jewish Agency insisted that, as a matter of principle, asserted the policy that only Jewish labour would be employed by Jewish organisations. MacDonald asserted that the British government would seek to amend this policy if Arab unemployment became ‘aggravated.’ In words which could still be applied to the Labour Party policy today, MacDonald concluded his letter by reaffirming the government’s ‘unqualified recognition’ that no solution can be satisfactory or permanent which is not based upon justice, both to the Jewish people and to the non-Jewish communities of Palestine.

The MacDonald letter aimed to placate the Zionists while disturbing as the Arabs as little as possible. When many Zionists took the letter as a withdrawal of the white paper, however, it became labelled the ‘black paper’ by Arabs. By confirming that the policy of the Palestine Mandate was to continue to support Jewish immigration, the Letter in effect negated some of the implications of the White Paper and facilitated increasing immigration during the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s. Of course, the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism had already become a blurred one in British politics, as the Passfield White Paper shows. Webb was not the only baronet in the Labour Cabinet. Sir Oswald Moseley, sixth baronet, stuck out like a sore thumb in the House of Commons. At first he was a Conservative, but fell foul of the Tory establishment and joined the Labour Party. When he failed to get J H Thomas, the useless Minister of Labour, to do something about the unemployed, Mosley produced his plan for increased allowances and public works, but it was rejected in the crisis of 1931. Mosley walked out to form his ‘New Party’, taking with him some of the more left-wing Labour MPs like John Strachey. When the government fell in August 1931, Strachey and Webb wrote Marxist books and seemed to hover between Mosley’s growing support for National Socialism, which culminated in the founding of the British Union of Fascists, and becoming apologists for Stalin’s USSR which, in the early thirties, was at least as anti-Semitic as Germany. There was little the Labour Party could do to resist the rise of anti-Semitism in Britain, either on the streets of the East End of London, or within its own ultra-left ranks. In fact, in trying to formulate a clear-cut alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’ it strengthened its own left-wing and, for a time, its links with Soviet communism. It also took the British left until at least 1934 to realise that the title of Hitler’s National Socialist Party was extremely misleading, and that what Hitler himself stood for was paranoid nationalism, racialism and militarism , with the Jews as the internal scapegoats. Similarly, Mosley’s powerful corporatist ideas attracted considerable support among the middle and working classes in 1932, including from Labour and Conservative MPs, from Aneurin Bevan to Harold Macmillan. Even after his New Party merged with the BUF in that year, his protectionist policies continued to attract support until they were overshadowed by the thuggish actions of his blackshirts at the Olympia rally in June 1934, soon followed by the Night of the Long Knives in Germany, in which the Nazi Party clearly ‘purged’ itself of its socialist faction. This confusion between right-wing and left-wing politics is evident in journalist Rene Cutforth’s eye-witness accounts of the period from both the British and German capitals:

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

The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but the habit never became a public menace as it was in Berlin in the early Thirties, when it was extremely easy for anybody, particularly at night, to be caught up in some skirmish between Nazis and Communists and be beaten up or, quite often, never heard of again.

Nonetheless, this confusion of extreme, authoritarian politics of the right and left in British politics in the early thirties was, undoubtedly, a significant factor in the failure of the mainstream Labour movement to stem the growth of anti-Semitism among its own traditional supporters and voters. Similarly, much of the international socialist reaction to Zionism throughout the decade meant that, although the British people were very welcoming to the Kindertransport and to Jewish refugees in general, the National government was able to finally wriggle free from the terms of its Palestine mandate. Another White Paper was published in May 1939 giving into Arab demands and limiting Jewish immigration to fifteen thousand for the next five years. I have referred to this in more detail in my previous post, together with the furious reaction of the Jewish Agency, but this was a fury which did not abate during the following three years. During a visit to the United States by David Ben Gurion, Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Zionist policy was reformulated. At a conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York in May 1942, the establishment of a Jewish state was envisaged to open the doors of Palestine to Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi terror and to lay the foundations for the future settlement of a Jewish majority.  The Declaration adopted by the Extraordinary Zionist Conference affirmed its rejection of the 1939 White Paper and denied its moral or legal validity. It quoted Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons from May 1939, in which he claimed that the Paper constituted a breach and repudiation of the Balfour Declaration. Furthermore, it stated,

The policy of the White Paper is cruel and indefensible in its denial of sanctuary to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution…

The Conference urges that the gates of Palestine be opened: that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands: and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.

Then and only then will the age-old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.

Following the war, and the holocaust, an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry was appointed in November 1945 to examine the status of the Jews in the former Axis-occupied countries (see my previous post). The Labour Government decided to invite US participation in finding a solution. Prime Minister Clement Attlee, perhaps mindful of the reservations about abandoning the immigration controls of 1939, of his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, declared that the report would have to be considered as a whole for its implications. The report recommended that a hundred thousand Jewish refugees should immediately be awarded settlement papers in 1946, commenting that the actual number of Nazi and Fascist persecutions was well in excess of this:

Indeed, there are more than that number in Germany, Austria and Italy alone. Although nearly a year has passed since their liberation, the majority of those in Germany and Austria are still living in assembly centres, the so-called “camps,” island communities in the midst of those at whose hands they suffered so much.

In their interests and the interests of Europe, the centres should be closed and their camp life ended. Most of them have cogent reasons for wishing to leave Europe. Many are the sole survivors of their families and few have any ties binding them to the countries in which they used to live.

Since the end of hostilities, little has been done to provide for their resettlement elsewhere. Immigration laws and restrictions bar their entry to most countries and much time must pass before such laws and restrictions can be altered and effect given to the alterations.

Some may go to countries where they have relatives; others may secure inclusion in certain quotas. Their number is comparatively small.

We know of no country to which the great majority can go in the immediate future other than Palestine. Furthermore, that is where almost all of them want to go. There they are sure that they will receive a welcome denied them elsewhere. There they hope to enjoy peace and rebuild their lives.

From this report we can clearly see that Ken Livingstone’s recent assertion that the post-war refugees could all have been absorbed by European countries flies in the face of all the contemporary evidence revealing the reality of their predicament, even had they wanted to be resettled in these countries. Immigration to and settlement within Palestine was the only realistic option to spending years in camps. Thus, apart from their historic connection with the country, and their right of access, shared with Christians and Muslims, to its holy places, the Jewish people had, the report concluded, also secured the right to continued existence, protection and development.  

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Various models were considered in the report for the future state(s) of Palestine, including a bi-national state, a federation of states, and partition into two or more states. Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary (pictured below), eventually announced on 14 February 1947 that the British government had decided to refer the problem to the United Nations. Bevin himself was against partition since, he said, the Arabs would never agree to two states being formed, so they would be unviable from the beginning. The United Nations duly set up a special committee of eleven member states (UNSCOP), which reported on 31 August 1947. The Jewish Agency accepted its partition plan as the indispensable minimum, but, as Bevin had predicted, the Arab governments rejected it. The UN General Assembly approved the recommendation in November 1947, by a two-thirds majority which included both the USA and the USSR, but not Britain. The British Mandate ended on 15 May 1948, the day after the Proclamation of the State of Israel, and on the same day as the armed forces of neighbouring Arab states entered Palestine.

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In these immediate post-war years, Ernest Bevin had been regarded by many Jews in Britain, the United States and Israel as an ‘arch-enemy’ of the Jewish people; and his action on the report of the Anglo-American Commission, and again on the resolution of the United Nations Assembly in 1947, his delay in recognising the State of Israel until February 1949, and some bitter remarks he made in the House of Commons’ debates on Palestine, seemed to justify that contemporary view. However, Lord Strang, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office for the greater part of Bevin’s term as Foreign Secretary, has suggested that his opposition to the State of Israel was due to his preoccupation with longer-term political, economic and strategic considerations:

He was disturbed by fear of active Soviet involvement in Middle East affairs, and foresaw that the persisting Arab-Jewish antagonism would be exploited by Moscow to the detriment of vital Western interests.

In this respect, Bevin’s analysis was correct, but this did not make him anti-Zionist, or by extension, anti-Semitic. Norman Leftwich, writing in 1962 about his Seventy Seven Years as a diplomat, argued that his talks with Bevin in London and Paris between 1946 and 1948, confirmed Strang’s judgement:

He was, I believe, anxious at the outset to find a solution to the conflict, and confident that he would succeed, as he had many bitter Labour disputes… But at least, when he did recognise the State in 1949, he did  his best to foster afresh good relations between Great Britain and Israel; and he made a vain attempt to bring Jews and Arabs together.

A Summary and Some Conclusions:

What lessons can we learn from these thirty years, which can inform the attitude and policy of the Labour Party today towards the Israel-Palestine question, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Firstly, it does not serve the party’s needs to try to relate anti-Semitism to other forms of discrimination on either racial or religious grounds. If we want to deal will these evils, or diseases, at root, then we need to understand the distinct historical nature of those roots. We need to understand that Jews and Arabs are both Semites, in ethnicity and language, and that until 1919 they had both suffered equally at the hands of an imperial regime in Palestine, as Palestinians, and that the Jews had also suffered both formal and informal discrimination in a variety of European countries, while also being well-integrated into some, e.g. Austria-Hungary. Zionism, the determination to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was the ambition of a minority of Jews in Europe and America until a policy of ethnic cleansing was adopted by some of the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s. For a time, the determination of Zionists to emigrate to Palestine suited many within the NSDAP in Germany, but there is no evidence to suggest that Hitler himself did more than temporarily to tolerate Zionist emigration schemes. To suggest that he actively supported Zionists or Zionism is not only factually wrong, but insulting to those Jews who saved many Jewish lives. In fact, it is a deliberate anti-Semitic distortion, with the aim of devaluing the brave role played by these people during the time of the Third Reich.

During the time of the second Labour government of 1929-31, Ramsay MacDonald upheld the right of the Jewish people to their own homeland in Palestine, as originally set out in the Balfour Declaration, while at the same time affirming the need for ‘equal justice’ for Jews and Arabs. He also sought to guarantee continuing Jewish immigration to Palestine, against the wills of anti-Zionists in his own party, ensuring an escape route for many thousands of refugees until this was all but ended by the National government in 1939. At the end of the war, the Labour government, led by Attlee and Bevin, eased the restrictions on immigration while seeking a permanent solution to the problem of Palestine. Unable to get the Arab representatives to agree to either a ‘bi-national’ state, or to partition, in conjunction with the US, they then handed over the question to the United Nations. They opposed partition, the solution pased by resolution in the General Assembly, because they feared its strategic exploitation by the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. However, in 1949, they recognised the State of Israel. Despite all that has happened since then in the Arab-Israeli conflict, I believe that, with the Cold War now over, the Labour Party has no obstacle to continuing to recognise Israel, to uphold MacDonald’s principle of ‘equal justice’ for the Jews and Palestnian Arabs and to support freedom of conscience and religious practice throughout Israel-Palestine. The best means of achieving these ends at present would seem to be through a two-state solution. Acts of terrorist violence or excessive use of force by any of the current governments within the territories are open to international scrutiny, critism and condemnation, as necessary, under the terms of UN resolutions passed since 1947. However, it should be clear that the Labour Party also opposes those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel, which would involve a further genocide against the Jewish people. Such statements are, in and of themselves, anti-Semitic. It is also anti-Semitic to hold, by word or action, Jewish people generically responsible for the actions of the Israeli government of any particular day, whether they are citizens of Israel or live elsewhere in the world. In our dealings with our sister party and Labour organisations in Israel, we also need to affirm the democratic nature of the country and its constitution.

Finally, the Labour Party’s history in the 1930s should perhaps be read as a warning as to what happens when it splits into wings and factions. In the 1930s, the collapse of the party as the constitutional means for working-class representation left a vacuum in which the extremists on the left and right were able to gain support, leading to attacks on Jews and other minorities. The party was no there to defend them against unemployment and discrimination.  Added to which many who started on the left ended up on the right because of their support for the corporativist or collectivist solutions demonstrated in Berlin and Moscow.  Following a backward path of statist centralisation in the diverse economy and society of the twenty-first century could be even more disastrous for the broad cross-section of society that Labour has always sought to represent.

Sources:

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

Walter Lacqueur (1976), The Arab-Israeli Reader. New York: Bantam Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Tweed, Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

Britain’s Refugee Record: Myth or Reality?   Leave a comment

Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.

Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.

Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:

Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.  

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Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War

Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a  White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.

Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:

We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.

Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.

To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian  officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they  caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.

Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.

In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames? 

Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.

The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:

Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.

Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.

In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.

However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.

In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:

In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.

Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:

The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.

At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:

It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.

The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…

…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.

Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.

It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:

A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”

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Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

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In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.

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The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

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

 

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