Archive for the ‘Leipzig’ Tag

75 Years Ago – The End of World War II in Europe, East & West; March-May 1945: The Battle for Berlin & Eastern Europe.   Leave a comment

The Collapse of the Reich:

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The final year of the war in Germany saw state lawlessness and terror institutionalised within the Reich. The People’s Court set up in Berlin to try cases of political resistance, presided over by Roland Freisler, sat ‘in camera’, while the prosecutors bullied prisoners into confessing political crimes, as in the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. In February 1945 the courtroom was demolished in a bomb attack and Freisler killed. In the last weeks of the war, the SS and Party extremists took final revenge on prisoners and dissidents. Thousands were murdered as Allied armies approached. Thousands more died in the final bomb attacks against almost undefended cities, crammed with refugees and evacuees. Ordinary Germans became obsessed with sheer survival. There was no ‘stab in the back’ from the home front, which Hitler had always used to explain defeat in 1918. Soldiers and civilians alike became the victims of a final orgy of terror from a Party machine which had traded on intimidation and violence from its inception.


Above: Berlin, 1945

Crossing the Rhine:

By the beginning of March, Hitler must surely have known, as Göring had intimated to Albert Speer in February, that the Reich he had created was doomed. The German front in the west cracked. For the final assault on Germany, the western Allies had eighty-five divisions, twenty-three of which were armoured, against a defending force of twenty-six divisions. In the east, the Soviet forces fielded over fourteen thousand tanks against  4,800 German and put 15,500 aircraft in the air against just fifteen hundred. A series of carefully organised military punches brought Soviet armies to within thirty-five miles of Berlin. On the 2nd, criticising Rundstedt’s proposal to move men south from the sector occupied by the 21st Army Group, Hitler perceptively pointed out: It just means moving the catastrophe from one place to another. 

Five days later, an armoured unit under Brigadier-General William M. Hoge from the 9th Armored Division of Hodge’s US First Army captured the Ludendorff railway bridge over the Rhine at Remagen intact, and Eisenhower established a bridgehead on the east of the Rhine. Hitler’s response was to sack Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west and replace him with Kesselring. The latter was handed a poisoned chalice in this appointment, with American troops swarming over the bridge into Germany, and Patton crossing on 22 March, telegraphing Bradley to say, For God’s sake tell the world we’re across … I want the world to know the 3rd Army made it before Monty. 

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Montgomery’s crossing of the Rhine, codenamed ‘Operation Plunder’, watched by Churchill and Brooke (above), established a six-mile-deep bridgehead within forty-eight hours.

Poland & The Red Army Marshals:

Also in March, having tricked them into attending a meeting, the Soviets arrested and then imprisoned former members of the Polish underground council. Both the American and the British governments found it hard to reconcile the oppressive Soviet actions with the business-like leader they had seen at Yalta. So they fell back once more on what had by now become their standard excuse. Stalin himself was trustworthy; it was the other powerful but shadowy figures in the Kremlin who were preventing the Yalta agreement being honoured. Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen, the prominent American diplomat and Soviet expert, recorded that by May 1945 the view of those in the State Department who had been at Yalta was that it was the ‘opposition’ that Stalin had encountered ‘inside the Soviet Government’ on his return from the conference that was responsible for the problems. Even those in Moscow deduced that it was ‘Red Army Marshals’ who were somehow trying to pull the strings in the Kremlin. But there was no-one behind Stalin pulling the strings. His occasional inconsistency of approach, including the tactic of sending a conciliatory telegram simultaneously with an accusatory one, was deliberately designed to keep the West guessing. In reality, his overall strategy was clear enough: He had always wanted the states neighbouring the Soviet Union to be ‘friendly’ according to his definition of the word, which meant eliminating anyone whom the Soviets considered a threat.

But neither Churchill nor Roosevelt would recognise that Stalin was simply being consistent. To begin with, each of them had had too much political capital wrapped up in the idea that they could deal with the Soviet leader. Laurence Rees has pointed out:

Each of the two Western leaders came to believe that they could form a ‘special’ bond with Stalin. Both were wrong. Stalin had no ‘special bond’ with anyone but in their attempts to charm him they had missed the fact that he had, in his individual way, charmed them instead. 

It was Churchill who felt most upset at the perceived Soviet breaches of Yalta, something that bemused Stalin. After all, Churchill had let the Soviets have a free hand in Romania without any problems, just as the Soviets had let the British use force to quash the revolution in Greece. For Stalin, that meant that Churchill supported the concept of ‘spheres of influence’. He thought that Churchill’s protest over Poland, regardless of the precise wording of the Yalta agreement, was a case of double standards on Churchill’s part. For the British PM, however, as he wrote in March, in a lengthy and emotional telegram to Roosevelt, Poland was the…

… test case between us and the Russians of the meaning which is attached to the such terms as Democracy, Sovereignty, Independence, Representative Government and free and unfettered elections. … He (Molotov) clearly wants to make a farce of consultations with the non-Lublin Poles, which means that the new government in Poland would be merely the present one dressed up to look more respectable to the ignorant, and also wants to prevent us from seeing the liquidations and deportations that are going on, and all the restof the game of setting up a totalitarian régime before elections are held, and even before a new government is set up. As to the upshoot of all this, if we do not get things right now it will soon be seen by the world that you and I, by putting our signatures to the Crimean settlement, have underwritten a fraudulent prospectus.

Roosevelt, whose telegrams were now being drafted by his advisers, Byrnes or Leahy, replied to Churchill’s message on 11 March, saying that the ‘only difference’ between the British and Americans on this key issue was ‘one of tactics’; Roosevelt’s ‘tactics’ were not to escalate their protests over the issue before diplomatic channels in Moscow had been exhausted. But this attempt to calm Churchill down failed, as he replied in even more emotional terms on 13 March:

Poland has lost her frontier. Is she now to lose her freedom? That is the question which will undoubtedly have to be fought out in Parliament and in public here. I do not wish to reveal a divergence between the British and the United States governments, but it would certainly be necessary for me to make it clear that we are in the presence of a great failure and an utter breakdown of what was settled at Yalta, but that we British have not the necessary strength to carry the matter further and the limits of our capacity to act have been reached.

Roosevelt, convinced that Churchill was over-reacting, subsequently pointed out that the agreement at Yalta could be read in such a way that Stalin could deflect many complaints. So why was Churchill so upset? Churchill, unlike Roosevelt, re-elected the previous year, had an election coming up, and the British electorate would not take kindly to accusations that Poland, the country over which Britain had gone to war in September 1939, had finally been the victim of wholesale betrayal. Moreover, Churchill’s own expansive rhetoric about Poland and Stalin meant that this was no ordinary issue of foreign policy, but a principle that had come to define the latter part of his war-time premiership. Roosevelt, although gravely ill, was only just starting his new term in office for the Democratic Party, and so was unburdened by such electoral concerns. But Churchill had overplayed the emotional rhetoric, and on 15 March Roosevelt sent him a cold reply:

I cannot but be concerned at the views you expressed… we have been merely discussing the most effective tactics and I cannot agree that we are confronted with a breakdown of the Yalta agreement until we have made the effort to overcome the obstacles incurred in the negotiations at Moscow.

Retreat from the Oder & Roosevelt’s departure:

Hitler visited the Eastern Front on 12th March, at Castle Freienwalde on the River Oder, where he told his commanders that Each day and each hour is precious because he was about to unleash a new secret weapon, without disclosing its nature. This was just another morale-boosting lie, since he had run out of rockets, the last V-2 landing a fortnight later and the new U-boats were also far from seaworthy. By mid-March, he had found a new scapegoat to blame for the coming victory of the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik hordes’; it was all the fault of the German ‘Volk’ who had betrayed him by losing the war. By that stage, he positively invited the retribution that the ‘Aryan race’ was about to undergo at the hands of the Russians, believing that it had been the people’s weakness as human beings that had led to the disaster, rather than his own strategic errors. He even said as much, at least according to Albert Speer’s subsequent testimony:

If the war should be lost, then the ‘Volk’ will also be lost. This fate is unavoidable. It is not necessary to take into consideration the bases the ‘Volk’ needs for the continuation of its most primitive existence. On the contrary, it is better to destroy these things yourself. After all, the ‘Volk’ would then have proved the weaker nation, and the future would exclusively belong to the stronger nation of the east. What would remain after this fight would in any event be inferior subjects, since all the good ones would have fallen. 

He thus repudiated his own people as being unworthy of him. The mere survival of the German people would, for Hitler, have conferred an unacceptable Untermensch status on them, and the utter destruction of them would, he believed, be preferable to this and to domination by Stalin. He had only ever referred to the Soviets as ‘barbarians’ and ‘primitives’ and on 19 March the Führer gave his orders that…

All military transport, communication facilities, industrial establishments, and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory that could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the forseeable future for the continuance of the war, be destroyed.

These orders included the destruction of all factories and food stores on all fronts. Fortunately, these orders were largely ignored by Speer and the other Nazi officials. If they had been carried out to the letter, the German people could hardly have survived the winter of 1945/6, which was harsh enough for them as it was. Yet, despite his decision not to act on this one particular order, it was Speer who had commanded the vast army of slave labourers that produced German armaments in barbarous conditions.

Meanwhile, Churchill realised that he had gone too far in his ‘quarrel’ with Roosevelt over Poland and tried to charm his way out of the situation. On 17 March, he wrote to the President:

I hope that the rather numerous telegrams I have to send you on on so many of our difficult and intertwined affairs are not becoming a bore to you. Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world so long as I am one of the builders.

Roosevelt did not reply but later acknowledged in an interchange on the 30th that he had received Churchill’s ‘very pleasing’ private message. But Roosevelt did get angry with Stalin when the latter accused the Americans of deception by holding a meeting with German officers in Berne in Switzerland about a possible surrender in Italy. Stalin saw this as a reason for both the strengthening of German resistance against the Red Army in the East and the swift progress of the Western Allies through Germany. Roosevelt was furious that Stalin had effectively accused him of lying, writing to him on 4 April that I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment towards your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations. … In his reply, Stalin immediately moderated his attack. But even though he was prepared to give way on this issue, he would not move an inch over Poland. On 7 April, he wrote to Roosevelt, agreeing that matters on the Polish question have reached a dead end. But Stalin was clear that the reason for this was that the Western Allies had departed from the principles of the Crimea Conference. The whole debate about Poland between the Western Allies and Stalin for the last three years and more were now plain for all to see. Stalin stated not just that the Lublin Poles should make up the bulk of the new government, but also that any other Poles who were invited to take part should be really striving to establish friendly relations between Poland and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviets themselves would vet all the applicants for such invitations. Stalin justified this in writing:

The Soviet Government insists on this because of the blood of the Soviet troops abundantly shed for the liberation of Poland and the fact that in the course of the last thirty years the territory of Poland has been used by the enemy twice for attack upon Russia – all this obliges the Soviet Government to strive that the relations between the Soviet Union and Poland be friendly.

Roosevelt recognised that, given the loose language of the Yalta agreement, there was little the Western Allies could do apart from to protest, and there were limits to that given the need for continued co-operation both in Europe and the Far East. Roosevelt left the White House on 30 March 1945 for the health resort of Warm Springs in Georgia, where his office was filled with documents about the forthcoming conference in San Francisco that would initiate the United Nations. Right to the end of his life, Roosevelt never lost his focus on his vision of the UN. Alongside this grand ideal, the detailed question of Soviet infractions in Poland must have seemed to him relatively unimportant. On 12 April he finally fell victim to a cerebral haemorrhage. Churchill paid tribute to the President in the House of Commons but chose not to attend his funeral, perhaps a final statement of disappointment that Roosevelt had not supported him in the last weeks over the protests to be made to Stalin.

The Exodus from the Baltic & the Berne talks:

Meanwhile, on 31 March, Stalin had ordered the assault on the capital. Both the planning and conduct of this final battle in the war in Europe demonstrate further signs of the disintegrating alliance with Stalin. The planning for the operation was conducted at the end of March and the beginning of April against the background of Stalin’s suspicion that the Western Allies were planning some kind of separate peace with Germany via the Berne talks. Stalin met Marshal Zhukov, the most prominent of the Soviet commanders, in the Kremlin late in the evening on 29 March and had handed an intelligence document which suggested that the Western Allies were in discussion with Nazi agents. The Soviet leader remarked that Roosevelt wouldn’t break the Yalta agreement but Churchill was capable of anything. Stalin had just received a telegram from General Eisenhower which, much to Churchill’s subsequent annoyance, confirmed that the Western Allies were not pushing forward immediately to Berlin. For Stalin, this was evidence of Allied deceit: if they had said that they were not moving to take Berlin, then they clearly were. In the spirit of saying the opposite of what one really intended, Stalin sent a telegram to Eisenhower on 1 April that stated that he agreed that the capture of Berlin should not be a priority since the city had lost its former strategic importance.

He may well also have written this because he still had other priorities since there was still fighting taking place across the broader front from the Baltic to the Balkans. It was extraordinary, considering that the war’s outcome had been in doubt since the destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into 1945. As many as four hundred thousand Germans were killed in the first five months of 1945. General Schörner’s newly re-created Army Group Centre, for example, was still fighting around the town of Küstrin on the Oder in April 1945. Similarly, the 203,000 men representing the remains of Army Group North, renamed Army Group Kurland, kept fighting into May, showing astonishing resilience in the face of utter hopelessness and retaining military cohesion until the moment that they were marched off into a ten-year captivity spent rebuilding the infrastructure of the Soviet Union that they had destroyed.

Following their seizure of Budapest on 13 February, the Red Army advanced towards Vienna. The Sixth Panzer Army halted the Russian advance down the Hungarian valleys into Austria for as long as its fuel could last out during March 1945, but Vienna finally fell to Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front on 13 April. Hitler’s headquarters had by then adopted a policy of lying to the army group commanders, as the commander of Army Group South discovered when he received orders to hold Vienna at all costs. Rendulic was given to telling his troops:

When things look blackest and you don’t know what to do, beat your chest and say: “I’m a National Socialist; that moves mountains!”

Since, on that occasion, this didn’t seem to work, he asked the OKW how the continuation or termination of the war was envisaged, only to receive the answer that the war was to be ended by political measures. This was clearly untrue, and Rendulic surrendered near Vienna in May. In the first five months of 1945, he had commanded Army Group North in East Prussia and Army Group Centre in January, Army Group Kurland in March and Army Group South in Austria in April. After the fall of Vienna, the Soviet troops met up with American and British troops at the River Enns and in Styria. After that, the advance of the Red Army from Pressburg to Prague led to the Czech uprising against the German occupation of Prague on 5 May.

In the north on the Baltic coast, the Germans were in a dire situation because of Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group Kurland (formerly Army Group North) in Latvia. Yet with both  Zhukov and Rokossovsky bearing down on more than half a million trapped on the Kurland peninsula, the German Navy – at tremendous cost – pulled off an evacuation that was far larger even than that at Dunkirk. No fewer than four army divisions and 1.5 million civilian refugees were taken from the Baltic ports of Danzig, Gotenhafen, Königsberg, Pillau, and Kolberg by the Kriegsmarine, and brought back to Germany. Under constant air attack, which claimed every major ship except the cruisers Prinz Eugen and Nürnberg, the German Navy had pulled off a tremendous coup. The Soviet Navy was, surprisingly, a grave disappointment throughout the second world war, though one of its submarines, the S-13, had managed to sink the German liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea on 31 January 1945, and around nine thousand people – almost half of them children – perished, representing the greatest loss of life on one ship in maritime history.


How the West was won (but almost lost to the V-I):

Nevertheless, in the west, when 325,000 men of Army Group B were caught in the Ruhr pocket and forced to surrender, Field Marshal Walther Model dissolved his army group and escaped into a forest. Having recently learnt that he was to be indicted for war crimes involving the deaths of 557,000 people in Latvian concentration camps, and after hearing an insanely optimistic radio broadcast by Goebbels on the Führer’s birthday, he shot himself on 21 April. A few days earlier, Churchill had proposed a triple proclamation from the Big Three, which now included the new US President, Harry S. Truman, …

… giving warning to Germany not to go on resisting. If (the Germans) carry on resistance past sowing time then there will be famine in Germany next winter … we take no responsibility for feeding Germany.

Churchill was advocating the most extreme measures, but like several others, he put forward this was not adopted. Despite encountering some fierce resistance, the Allied victory in the west was not in doubt in the minds of rational Germans. For the most optimistic Germans, however, Goebbels’ propaganda about the so-called ‘wonder weapons’ kept their hopes alive, but on 29 March, six days after Montgomery’s Second Army and the US Ninth Army had crossed the Rhine, anti-aircraft gunners in Suffolk shot down the last of the V-I flying bombs launched against Britain in the Second World War. Called the Vergeltungswaffe-Ein (Vengeance Weapon-I), they were nicknamed ‘doodle-bugs’ or ‘buzz bombs’ by the Britons at whom they were targetted. The V-I was certainly a horrific weapon, powered by a pulse-jet mechanism using petrol and compressed air, it was twenty-five feet four inches long with a sixteen-foot wingspan, and weighed 4,750 pounds. Its warhead was made up of 1,874 pounds of Amatol explosive, a fearsome mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate. Its sister-rocket, the V-2, was equally fiendish, but with the Luftwaffe unable to escort bombers over England due to British fighter protection, the rockets were a sign of Hitler’s desperation rather than his strength.


As the V-I’s maximum range was  130 miles, London and south-east England were its main targets, and they suffered heavily. Launched from 125-foot concrete ramps and flown by autopilot from a preset compass, the flying bomb contained in its nose propeller a log which measured the distance flown. Once it reached the correct range, the elevators in the wings were fully deflected and it dived, cutting out the engine as it did so. This created a sinister change in the noise created which signified that they were about to fall on those below, bringing a terrifying certainty of an imminent, devastating explosion. It has been estimated that eighty per cent of V-I’s landed within an eight-mile radius of their targets. Between 13 June 1944 and 29 March 1945, more than 13,000 V-I bombs were launched against Britain. They flew too low for heavy anti-aircraft guns to be able to hit them very often, but too high for the light guns to reach them. It was therefore left to the RAF’s radar-guided fighters to intercept them and bring them down. As the Normandy launch-sites were shut down by the invading British Army, some of the V-I’s were launched from the modified Heinkel bombers. In all, more than twenty-four thousand Britons were casualties of the vicious ‘secret weapon’, with 5,474 deaths. Whereas the Luftwaffe had long-since confined its raids to night-time when its bombers could be cloaked in darkness, the pilotless bombs came all through the day and night.

The V-I bombs could also devastate a huge area over a quarter of a square mile, but as more and more were brought down by a combination of barrage balloons, anti-aircraft fire and the fighters it soon became clear that Hitler, who had hoped that the V-I’s might destroy British morale and force Churchill’s government to sue for peace, was wrong about the weapon’s potential. He then transferred his hopes to the V-2, devised in Pomerania as a supersonic ballistic missile, flying faster than the speed of sound, which meant that the victims heard was the sound of its detonation. It was impossible to intercept as it flew at 3,600 mph, ten times faster than the Spitfire. With production at full capacity in the autumn of 1944, Hitler had hoped that London could be bombed into submission before the Allies could invade Germany. Yet it was largely his own fault that the V-2 came on stream so late, so that the first rocket to land on Britain didn’t do so until September 1944 in Chiswick, west London, having been fired from a converted lorry in the Hague. Over the five months of the campaign, 1,359 rockets were fired at London, killing 2,754 and injuring 6,523. Antwerp was also heavily hit by the weapons, resulting in thirty thousand casualties. It has also been estimated that up to twenty thousand people died in the horrific slave-labour conditions while manufacturing the rockets. Life in the factories, which were scattered all over Germany, was nasty, brutish and short: apart from the horrific accidents, there was mass starvation, disease and mistreatment. The concentration of labour, raw materials and technological research engaged in the production of the V-weapons was in no way justified by their results, and their deployment was too late to change the outcome of the war.


From mid-March, the military situation slipped completely out of Hitler’s control: The Rhine front had collapsed as soon as the Allies had challenged it, and they then swept forward to the Elbe. At the end of March, Hitler again dismissed perhaps the best of his battlefield commanders, Heinz Guderian, and replaced him with the utterly undistinguished General Hans Krebs. Other fanatical Nazi generals such as Schörner and Rendulic were promoted, not so much for their military competence as for their ideological loyalty.

Planning for Nuremberg:

How would the maniacal genocide of these dedicated Nazis be punished after the war? During the ‘lull’ in the fighting on the Western front, On 12 April, at 3.30 p.m. the British War Cabinet discussed how to deal with German war criminals. Antony Eden set out his policy for a large-scale trial. Preferring the summary execution without trial of the senior Nazis, Stafford Cripps argued that either the Allies would be criticised for not giving Hitler a real trial, or they would ‘give him a chance to harangue’ with the result being ‘neither proper trial nor political act’ but ‘the worst of both worlds’. Churchill suggested a ‘Trial of the Gestapo as a body first followed by proceedings against selected members. The Americans, however, had made it clear that they would not agree to ‘penalties without trial’ and Stalin also insisted on trials. The historian in Churchill was unconvinced, and he advanced a ‘Bill of Attainder, not impeachment’, such as that used to execute Charles I’s advisor the Earl of Strafford in 1640 without the need for a trial.

The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, believed that a ‘mock trial’ was objectionable, and it would be better to declare that they would put them all to death. Churchill agreed, saying that the trial would be a farce. Turning to the wording of the indictments and the defendants’ right to be given access to defence barristers, the PM argued:

All sorts of complications ensue as soon as you admit a fair trial. … they should be treated as outlaws. We should however seek agreement of our Allies … I would take no responsibility for a trial, even though the United States wants to do it. Execute the principal criminals as outlaws, if no Ally wants them.


Above: A scene from the Nuremberg Trials of the major war criminals held between November 1945 and October 1946. Twenty-two principal defendants were tried, and Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, was tried ‘in absentia’. Göring (seated, left) kept up a rigorous defence and admitted his support for Hitler, but not his guilt. He committed suicide on the night of his execution when another nine were hanged. Bormann was condemned to death but never caught.  

But Field Marshal Smuts thought that Hitler’s summary execution might ‘set a dangerous precedent’ and that an ‘Act of State’ was needed to legalise Hitler’s execution. Churchill added that allowing Hitler to right to make judicial arguments against his own execution would ape judicial procedure but also bring it into contempt, and Morrison interjected that it would also ensure that he would become a martyr in Germany. Churchill concluded the discussion by saying that Lord Simon should liaise with the Americans and Russians to establish a list of grand criminals and get them to agree that these may be shot when taken in the field. In the end, this expedient was not adopted, and instead, the long process of putting the Senior Nazis on trial was established by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (featured above), which for all its drawbacks did lead to justice being seen to be done.

The Final Assault on Berlin:

On the Eastern front, the Russians didn’t move until mid-April. As he opened the last planning session for the capture of Berlin, Stalin said I have the impression that a very heavy battle lies ahead of us. Yet he had 2.5 million troops, 6,250 tanks and 7,500 aircraft to throw into this enormous final assault, and on Monday 16 April around twenty-two thousand guns and mortars rained 2,450 freight-car loads of shells at the German lines, which were also blinded by a mass of searchlights shone at them. Zhukov’s troops launched a massive attack on the Seelow Heights outside Berlin, and within four days they had broken through this last major defensive position in front of the capital. The Russian artillery gunners had to keep their mouths open when they fire, in order to stop their eardrums bursting. After a massive bombardment of the far bank, they crossed the Oder and advanced from the Neisse River. The leading Soviet columns joined at Nauen and encircled Berlin by 24 April. In a move calculated both to speed the advance and deny Zhukov the glory of overall command, Stalin had announced to his generals that he was splitting the task of capturing Berlin between two Soviet armies. It was to be a race for the capital between Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konyev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Mahmud Gareev, then a major in the headquarters of Soviet 45 Infantry Corps, recalled:

Stalin encouraged an intrigue … When they were drawing the demarcation line between the two fronts in Berlin, Stalin crossed this demarcation line out and said: “Whoever comes to Berlin first, well, let him take Berlin.” This created friction. … You can only guess Stalin was do that no one gets stuck up and thinks he was the particular general who took Berlin. … At the same time he had already begun to think what would happen after the war if Zhukov’s authority grew too big.


By Hitler’s birthday, the 20th, the Red Army was shelling the German leader’s subterranean refuge, the Führerbunker. For Vladen Anschishkin, a captain in a mortar unit in Zhukov’s Belorussian Front, this was the culmination of years of fighting:

At last it was the end of the war, it was a triumph, and it was like a race, like a long-distance race, the end of the race. I felt really extreme – well, these words did not exist then – but I felt under psychological and emotional pressure. Naturally, I didn’t want to get killed,. This is natural. I didn’t want to be wounded. I wanted to live to the victory, but it was somewhere in the background, and in the foreground were things I had to do, and this state of stress that was in me.

He was sure that the years of brutal warfare had changed him and his comrades:

In the end, in the war itself, people go mad. They become like beasts. You shouldn’t consider a soldier an intellectual. Even when an intellectual becomes a soldier, and he sees the blood and the intestines and the brains, then the instinct of self-preservation begins to work. … And he loses all the humanitarian features inside himself. A soldier turns into a beast.

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The battle for Berlin was one of the bloodiest and most desperate of the war. Within six days, the Red Army was inside Berlin, but desperate fighting in the streets and rubble there cut down their advantages and increased those of the Germans. The Wehrmacht’s lack of tanks mattered less in the built-up areas, and hundreds of Soviet tanks were destroyed in close fighting by the Panzerfaust, an anti-tank weapon that was very accurate at short range. Vladen Anchishkin recalled:

So many of our people died – a great many, a mass. … It was a real non-stop assault, day and night. The Germans also decided to hold out to the end. The houses were high and with very thick foundations and basements and very well fortified. … And our regiment found itself in terrible confusion and chaos, and in such a chaos it’s very easy to touch somebody else with your bayonet. Ground turns upside-down, shells and bombs explode. 


Above: The ruins of Berlin with the Brandenburg Gate in the background. The city was hit by twenty-four major bomb attacks which destroyed one-third of all housing and reduced the population from 4.3 to 2.6 million as the bombed-out families moved to safer parts of the country. The Soviet offensive in April reduced large stretches of central Berlin to rubble.

Within the chaos of the battle, the rivalry between Zhukov and Konyev was intense. Anatoly Mereshko, an officer with Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, was ordered to find out just which Soviet forces had captured a particular suburb of Berlin first:

I got into my car with machine gunners. Rode up there and talked to the people in the tanks. One said: “I am from the Belorussian Front”, another: “I am from the Ukrainian Front.” “Who came here first?” I asked. “I don’t know,” they replied. I asked civilians: “Whose tanks got here fist?” They just said: “Russian tanks.” It was difficult enough for a military enough for a military man to tell the difference between the tanks. So when I came back I reported that Zhukov’s tanks got their first and Konyev’s tanks came later. So the celebration fire-works in Moscow were in his name.

In the heat of the battle, it was also clear that the race between Zhukov and Konyev had not helped the soldiers to know just which forces were friendly and which were not. Vladen Anschishken recalled:

They were rivals… There was rivalry between two fronts. There was nothing criminal about it… But this rivalry in Berlin did not always have the positive effect because sometimes soldiers didn’t know who was where. … This was on the borders between the fronts, and a lot of people died only because of rivalry between two fronts.

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Despite the difficulties, the Red Army fought with immense conviction in Berlin, fuelled by the sense that they were on a mission of retribution. We are proud to have made it to the beast’s lair, one soldier wrote home: We will take revenge, revenge for all our sufferings. Taking overall command of the great final offensive against Berlin itself, Marshal Zhukov gave up his 1st Belorussian Front to Vasily Sokolovsky and took over an army group combining both that and Konev’s front, reaching Berlin on 22 April 1945 and encircling it three days later.

The Capture & Capitulation of the Capital:

On Wednesday 25 April, units from the US First Army, part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and from the 1st Ukrainian Front met up at Torgau on the Elbe.


Although criticised since for his desire to leave the fight to the Soviets, Eisenhower was correct in the assumption that there would be heavy losses in the struggle. It is perfectly possible that Simpson’s US Ninth Army, which was on the Elbe only sixty miles west of Berlin on 11 April, eleven days before the Russians reached it, could have attacked the city first. It had crossed a hundred and twenty miles in the previous ten days, and the Germans were not putting up the level of resistance in the west that they were in the east. But, despite the complaints of Montgomery and Patton that the Western Allies should be taking Berlin ahead of the Russians, the Western Allies did not have to suffer the vast number of casualties in the final desperate struggle, though they would probably have fought it in a less costly manner. Bradley’s assessment, made for Eisenhower, was that a Western attack on Berlin would cost a hundred thousand casualties, which he considered a pretty stiff price for a prestige objective. Konyev later stated that the Red Army lost eight hundred tanks in the battle for Berlin, and Russian casualties amounted to 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded. These figures could have been smaller had Stalin not insisted on taking Berlin as soon as possible, regardless of the human cost involved. They also include all the casualties incurred in the fighting from the Baltic to the Czech border. It has been estimated that twenty-five thousand died within the capital itself.

Despair, Suicide & Resistance:

Meanwhile, in his bunker beneath the Old Chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse, Hitler continued to indulge himself in fantasies about the Allies falling out with each other once their armies met. Although he has often been described as moving phantom armies around on maps in the bunker and making hollow declarations of coming victory, this was in part the fault of the sub-standard communications centre. Unlike the well-appointed Wolfschanze, his Berlin bunker had only a one-man switchboard, one radio transmitter and one radio-telephone which depended on a balloon suspended over the Old Chancellery. Officers were reduced to telephoning numbers taken at random from the Berlin telephone directory, the Soviet advance being plotted by how many times the calls were answered in Russian rather than German. Hitler decided to stay where he was. He held his mid-day conferences, as usual, charting the progress of the Russians across the city block by block. He also composed his political testament, denouncing his oldest friends as traitors all and railed against the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ that he believed had brought him down.

The last time Hitler appeared in semi-public was on his fifty-sixth and last birthday on 20 April, when he congratulated a line-up of Hitler Youth who had distinguished themselves as fighters. One of these children, Arnim Lehmann, recalls the Führer’s weak voice and rheumy eyes as he squeezed their ears and told them how brave they were being. The German Ninth Army under General Theodor Busse in the south of Berlin and the Eleventh Army under General Felix Steiner in the north would now try to defend a city with no gas, water, electricity or sanitation. When Steiner, who was outnumbered ten to one, failed to counter-attack to prevent Berlin’s encirclement, he was subjected to a tirade from Hitler. The last direct order to be personally signed by the Führer in the bunker was transmitted to Field Marshal Schörner at 04:50 on 24 April and reads:

I shall remain in Berlin, so as to play a part, in honorouble fashion, in the decisive battle for Germany, and to set a good example to all the rest. I believe that in this way I shall be rendering Germany the best service. Fot the rest, every effort must be made to win the struggle for Berlin. You can therefore help decisively, by pushing northwards as early as possible. With kind regards, Yours, Adolf Hitler.

The signature, in red pencil, looks remarkably normal, considering the circumstances. Schörner, who had large numbers of men shot for cowardice, was named in Hitler’s will as the new head of the Wehrmacht, but nine days later he deserted his army group and flew off in a small aircraft in civilian clothes to surrender to the Americans. He was handed over to the Russians and kept in captivity until 1954. In all about thirty thousand death sentences for cowardice and desertion were handed down by the Germans on the Eastern Front in the last year of the war, two-thirds of which were carried out.

The Red Army had long been shooting anyone captured in SS uniform, and those SS men who had discarded it nonetheless could not escape the fact that their blood group was tattoed on their left arms. It is thought that it was this knowledge of certain death which kept many formations at their post during the dark days of the battles for Berlin, but, just in case, the military police remained vigilant to the last, ready to hang or shoot suspected deserters. Spreading defeatism was also a capital offence; after a short mockery of a trial by the SS or Gestapo, those suspected of it for whatever reason were hanged from the nearest lamp-post, with signs around their necks stating I have hanged because I was too much of a coward to defend the Reich’s capital, or I am a deserter; because of this I will not see the change in destiny or All traitors die like this one. It is thought that at least ten thousand people died in this manner in Berlin – the same as the number of women who died (often by suicide) after having been raped by the Red Army there.

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Above: Two women lie dead after taking cyanide in Leipzig at the end of the war.

Because of this horror, the Germans fought on with an efficiency that was utterly remarkable given the hopelessness of the situation. Yet at Berlin, as at Stalingrad, the indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment created fine opportunities for the defenders, of whom the city had eighty-five thousand of all kinds. As well as the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS and Gestapo contingents, there were several foreign volunteer forces, including French Fascists, and the desperately under-armed ‘Volkssturm’ (home guard) battalions made up of men over forty-five and children under seventeen. Many of the three thousand Hitler Youth who fought were as young as fourteen, and some were unable to see the enemy from under their adult-sized coal-scuttle helmets. The looting, drunkenness, murder and despoilation indulged in by the Red Army in East Prussia, Silesia and elsewhere in the Reich, but especially in Berlin, were responses of soldiers who had marched through devastated Russian towns and cities over the previous twenty months. Max Egremont has written of how…

Red Army troops loathed the neatness they found on the farms and in the towns of East Prussia: the china lined up on the dressers, the spotless housekeeping, the well-fenced fields and sleek cattle.

The Red Army’s ‘Retribution’:


Above and Below: A Russian photographer captures the smiles of German women at the Brandenburg Gate in defeated Berlin. The Soviet soldiers were ready to claim the spoils of war and seek retribution for Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. There were widespread acts of looting and rape, and the latest research shows that as many as two million German women were raped. The other half of the photo (below) shows a Soviet tank.


The women of Germany were also about to pay a high personal price for the Wehrmacht’s four-year ravaging of Mother Russia. Antony Beevor, the historian of Berlin’s downfall, at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rapes. In Berlin alone, ninety thousand women were raped in the last few days before the city surrendered. As one Red Army veteran joked, he and his comrades raped ‘on a collective basis’. When the Red Army arrived in Dresden, the Soviets committed atrocities in direct view of the house where twenty-two-year-old American, John Noble, lived with his father, who owned a camera factory, and the rest of his family, all of whom were American citizens. Although not imprisoned by the Nazis, they were effectively interned, reporting regularly to the police. Noble recalled how:

In the house next to ours, Soviet troops went in and pulled the women out on the street, had mattresses that they pulled out, and raped the women. The men had to watch, and then the men were shot. Right at the end of our street a woman was tied onto a wagon wheel and was terribly misused. … Of course you had the feeling that you just wanted to stop it, but there was no possibility to do that.

The open abuse of women and the general looting of the city continued for at least three weeks before a semblance of order returned. Even after this period, the Nobles regularly heard reports that women who worked in their camera factory had been assaulted on their journey to and from work. Far from seeking to stop or even discourage rapes and assaults of German women, the Soviet authorities encouraged them as a legitimate and appropriate form of retribution. This was articulated by Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet propagandist, who wrote: Soldiers of the Red Army. German women are yours! The rapes in Germany were on a massive scale, even more so than in Hungary. Around two million were assaulted. In one of the worst examples of atrocity, a Berlin lawyer who had protected his Jewish wife through all the years of Nazi persecution tried to stop Red Army soldiers raped her, but was then shot. As he lay dying, he watched as his wife was gang-raped. Potsdam, just outside Berlin, was devastated and much of it lay in ruins. Ingrid Schüler, who lived in an apartment block within a mile of the proposed site of the forthcoming conference, was seventeen years old when the Red Army arrived in April. She recalled:

My parents hid me. … we were extremely lucky because my mother was not raped. … women were of huge importance to them (the Soviets). That was the worst thing: the rapes. … I can tell you about a baker’s family in our street. The Russians had gone into their house intending to rape the baker’s wife. Her husband, who happened to be at home, stood in front of her trying to protect her and was immediately shot dead. With their passage to the woman clear, she was raped.

The scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the Red Army in Germany in the first six months of 1945 was clearly immense. And the motivational factors were obvious as well. Vladen Anchishkin put it this somewhat incomprehensible way:

When you see this German beauty sitting and weeping about the savage Russians who were hurting her, why did she not cry when she was receiving parcels from the Eastern Front?

Only very occasionally, in their letters home, did the soldiers admit what was happening. One Red Army soldier, writing home in February 1945, commented that the fact that the German women did not speak a word of Russian, made the act of rape easier:

You don’t have to persuade them. You just point a Nagan (a type of revolver) and tell them to lie down. Then you do your stuff and go away.


It was not only German women who suffered in these last few days before the city capitulated and the Reich finally surrendered. Polish women, Jewish concentration-camp survivors, even released Soviet female POWs were raped at gunpoint, often by up to a dozen soldiers. Because Order No. 227 had decreed that Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were traitors, gang-rapes of Russian female POWs were permitted, even actually arranged. Age, desirability or any other criteria made virtually no difference. In Dahlem, for instance, Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were raped without pity. The documentary and anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and indisputable. The Red Army, having behaved so heroically on the battlefield, raped the women of Germany as part of their reward, with the active collusion of their officers up to and including Beria and even Stalin himself. Indeed, he explicitly excused their conduct on more than one occasion, seeing it as part of the rights of the conqueror. He asked Marshal Tito in April 1945 about these rights of the ordinary Russian soldier:

What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors?… You have imagined the Red Army to be ideal. And it is not ideal, nor can it be … The important thing is that it fights Germans.


Stalin with Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February.

Some historians have argued that these atrocities, like those committed by the Red Army earlier in the year during the siege of Budapest, must be seen in the overall context of violent retribution on all sides of the war. After all, they claim, for years the Red Army had been fighting an enemy who had announced that they were fighting a ‘war of annihilation’. As well as for the sexual gratification of the soldiers, mass rape was intended as a humiliation and revenge on Germany. If the men of the Wehrmacht had sown the wind in Operation Barbarossa, it was their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who were forced to reap that whirlwind. Yet it is perfectly possible, given events elsewhere the same year, that the Red Army would have brutalised the Germans even if they had not envied their enemies’ prosperity and sought revenge for the terrible acts of war they had exacted during their invasion, occupation and destruction of vast tracts of their ‘motherland’ and its defenders.

It was not the Red Army alone that indulged in the ‘weaponisation’ of rape against civilians. In North Africa and western Europe, the US Army stands indicted of raping an estimated fourteen thousand civilian women between 1942 and 1945. But though these resulted in arrests, convictions and executions (iniquitously of black GIs), nobody was ever executed for raping a German woman. Nor is there any evidence that Russian soldiers were reprimanded for rape, despite the two million cases in one campaign lasting at most three months. It was no doubt in the context of that ‘campaign of retribution’ against both the Wehrmacht and the German civilian population that Vladen Anchiskin later admitted to committing the ultimate act of revenge in Czechoslovakia when he and some of his comrades were fired upon by a group of retreating SS soldiers. All his pent-up hatred burst through into what he himself described as ‘a frenzy’. Once they were captured, he had a number of these soldiers brought in to see him in an apartment block, one by one, for “interrogation”. He stabbed the first man to death, also cutting his throat. He tried to explain his actions:

I was in such a state. … What could I feel? … only one thing, revenge. … I felt, “You wanted to kill me? Now you have it. I waited for this – you were hunting me down for four years. You killed so many of my friends in the rear and on the front, and you were allowed to do that. But here I have the right. … You asked for it.”

Three Suicides, Two Surrenders & a Celebration:

As Soviet forces approached the bunker under the chancellery on 30 April 1945, at about 3.30 p.m, Hitler simultaneously clenched his teeth on a cyanide capsule and shot himself through the temple. When Winston Churchill was told the next day of the German official broadcast stating that Hitler had died fighting with his last breath against Bolshevism, his comment was: Well, I must say he was perfectly right to die like that. Lord Beaverbrook, who was dining with him at the time, observed that the report was obviously untrue. It had taken units as hardened as Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front to force their way into the capital of the Reich, which was defended street-by-street all the way up to the Reichstag and the Reich Chancellery. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, the hero of Stalingrad, commander of the Eighth Guards Army and now of Soviet forces in central Berlin, recalled the Germans’ attempted capitulation, which took place at his command post on May Day, with the visit of General Hans Krebs, whom Hitler had appointed Chief of the OKH General Staff in Guderian’s place the previous month:

At last, at 03:50 hours, there was a knock at the door, and in came a German general with the Order of the Iron Cross around his neck, and the Nazi swastika on his sleeve. … A man of middle height, and solid build, with a shaven head, and scars on his face. … With his right hand he makes a gesture of greeting – in his own, Nazi, fashion; with his left he tenders his service book to me.

Speaking through an interpreter, Krebs said:

I shall speak of exceptionally secret matters. You are the first foreigner to whom I will give this information, that on 30 April Hitler passed from us from his own will, ending his life by suicide.

Chuikov recalled that Krebs paused at this point, expecting ardent interest in this sensational news. Instead, Chuikov replied that the Soviets had already heard this news. In fact, this was not true, but he had already determined that he would show no surprise at any unexpected approaches, but remain calm and avoid drawing any hasty conclusions. Since Krebs had brought only an offer of a negotiated surrender with a new government, headed by Dönitz as president and Goebbels as chancellor, Chuikov – under orders from Zhukov and the Stavka – refused and demanded an unconditional surrender. Krebs then left to report to Goebbels, commenting as he left that May Day is a great festival for you, to which Chuikov responded:

And today why should we not celebrate? It is the end of the war, and the Russians are in Berlin.

After Krebs had told Goebbels the news, they both committed suicide, their remains being thrown in with those of Mr and Mrs Hitler. Goebbels’ corpse was identified by the special boot he wore for his clubbed foot. The next day, 2 May, Berlin capitulated and six days later so did all German forces throughout the now-defunct Reich. Soviet attacks in Kurland continued to be repulsed until the day of capitulation, but over the next week, the German armies still in the field surrendered to the Allied forces encircling them. Limited resistance continued until the remaining German forces surrendered on 7 May. In the early morning, General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German High Command, signed the document of unconditional surrender. The next day, the war in Europe, which had cost some thirty million lives, was finally over. The capitulation of all German forces became effective on 9 May.


The famous photograph (above and below) of the red flag being waved over the Reichstag in 1945 was taken by the twenty-eight-year-old Ukrainian Jew Yevgeny Khaldei with a Leica camera. The flag was actually one of three red tablecloths that the photographer had, in his words, got from Grisha, the bloke in charge of the stores at work. He had promised to return them and a tailor friend of his father’s had spent all night cutting out hammers and sickles and sewing them onto the cloths to make Soviet flags. So it was a tablecloth that was flown, somewhat precariously, over the devastated Berlin that day. When Khaldei explained to Gisha what had happened to his tablecloth, the latter reacted ‘angrily’:

What do you mean, you left it on the Reichstag? Now you’re really going to get me into trouble!


The Tass picture editor spotted that the young soldier propping up his flag-waving comrade had watches on both wrists, a clear indication of Red Army looting, so he made Khaldei airbrush the supporting soldier out of the photograph, also making the flag-wavers act look more hazardous and heroic. Although Zhukov was relegated after the war by a suspicious and jealous Stalin, his eminence and popularity in the West did at least allow him to escape the fate of 135,056 other Red Army soldiers and officers who were condemned by military tribunals for counter-revolutionary crimes. A further 1.5 million Soviet soldiers who had earlier surrendered to the Germans were transported to the ‘Gulag’ or labour battalions in Siberia. The issue as to how many Soviets, military and civilian, died in during what they called their ‘Great Patriotic War’ was an intensely political one, and the true figure was classified as a national secret in the USSR until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even then, the figures were disputed. Richard Overy has chosen to believe the 1997 Russian figures of eleven million military losses and civilian losses of around sixteen million, giving an aggregate figure of twenty-seven million. In a conflict that claimed the lives of fifty million people, this means that the USSR lost more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

The Immediate Aftermath & Routes to Potsdam:


The fact that it was not until May 1945  that Germany bowed to its conquerors, is testimony to the sheer bloody-minded determination of the German Reich was one reason for the length of time they were able to hold out against the Allies, but the high quality of their troops was the other. The statistics are unequivocal: up to the end of 1944, on a man-for-man basis, the Germans inflicted between twenty and fifty per cent higher casualties on the British and Americans than they suffered, and far higher than that of the Russians, under almost all military conditions. Even in the first five months of 1945, the Red Army’s advance on the Eastern front was very costly because the Germans continued to inflict more losses on their opponents than they suffered themselves. Although they lost because of their Führer’s domination of grand strategy as well as the sheer size of the populations and economies ranged against them, it is indisputable that the Germans were the best fighting men of the Second World War for all but the last few months of the struggle when they suffered a massive dearth of equipment, petrol, reinforcements and air cover. But although throughout the last year of the war the Germans inflicted higher casualties on the Russians than they received, this was never more than the Soviets could absorb. Attacks, especially the final assault on Berlin, were undertaken by the Red Army generals without regard to the cost in lives, an approach which German generals could not adopt because of a lack of adequate reserves. From his Nuremberg cell in June 1946, Kleist reflected:

The Russians were five times superior to us poor but brave Germans, both in numbers and in the superiority of their equipment. My immediate commander was Hitler himself. Unfortunately, Hitler’s advice in those critical periods was invariably lousy.   


As the Red Army prepared to celebrate victory in eastern Europe, Roosevelt was replaced by his Vice President, Harry Truman, who immediately brought new energy to the presidency, as George Elsey, working in the White House map room, discovered:

Harry Truman was utterly unlike President Roosevelt in terms of a personal relationship. First of all, our impression of him – here’s a guy who can walk. And he was vigorous, physically vigorous. He was only a few years younger than Franklin Roosevelt but in behaviour, attitude, speech and so on would have thought he was twenty-five years younger. When he first came into the map room he walked briskly around, introduced himself to each of us – “I’m Harry Truman” … and he took an intense interest in what we had in the map room, wanted to read our files. … Truman was open and eager to learn, and was very willing to admit that he didn’t know. Roosevelt would never have admitted that he didn’t know everything himself.

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As for the Soviets, they knew little about him and disliked what they did know. Truman was unaware of the intricacies of US foreign policy; so, in those early weeks of his presidency, he relied on old hands like Harriman and Hopkins. On 25 May, six weeks after Roosevelt’s death, Harry Hopkins arrived in Moscow at Truman’s request. He met Stalin on the evening of 26 May. It was an important meeting, not so much in terms of what was decided, but because Stalin’s behaviour demonstrated that there was no doubt that he – rather than, allegedly, the ‘people behind him’ – controlled Soviet policy. Hopkins emphasised that ‘public opinion’ in the USA had been badly affected by the inability to carry into effect the Yalta agreement on Poland. Stalin replied by putting the blame for the failure squarely on the British, who, he claimed, wanted to build up a ‘cordon sanitaire’ on the Soviet borders, presumably in order to keep the Soviets in check. Hopkins denied that the United States wanted any such thing, and added that the Americans were happy to see ‘friendly countries’ along the Soviet borders. The use of the trigger word ‘friendly’ was welcomed by Stalin who said that, if that was the case, then they could ‘easily come to terms’ about Poland.


But Hopkins’ remarks were turned to his disadvantage by Stalin at their second meeting on 27 May. The Soviet leader said that he would not attempt to use Soviet public opinion as a screen but would, instead, speak about the views of his government. He then stated his position that the Yalta agreement meant that the existing Lublin government could simply be ‘reconstructed’. He went on to warn that:

Despite the fact that they were simple people, the Russians should not be regarded as fools, which was a mistake the West frequently made, nor were they blind and could quite well see what was going on before their eyes. It is true that that the Russians are patient in the interests of a common cause but their patience had its limits.

Stalin also remarked that if the Americans started to use the issue of ‘Lend-Lease’ as a ‘pressure’ on the Russians, this would be a ‘fundamental mistake’. Hopkins was bruised by these remarks and denied the accusations that he was ‘hiding’ behind American public opinion and attempting to use the issue of Lend-Lease as a ‘pressure weapon’. Stalin was using offensive remarks as a means of probing the strength of his opponent, as he had done with Churchill and Roosevelt in April, by correspondence. But Stalin knew that these negotiations had nothing to do with ‘friendship’ or ‘personal relationships’. He did not care whether he was liked or not. What mattered to him was power and credibility Eden, with all his experience of international relations and negotiations wrote that:

If I had to pick a team for going into a conference room, Stalin would be my first choice.

Stalin was toying with the new President’s envoy, telling Hopkins that the ‘Warsaw’ (formerly Lublin) Poles might be persuaded to concede four ministerial posts in the Polish provisional government to the ‘London’ Poles from the list submitted by the British and Americans. The idea that he had to bow to the wishes of his own puppet government in Poland was also a trick he had used before, but no-one had yet dared to say to his face that it was obvious nonsense. Towards the end of the meeting, Hopkins made an impassioned appeal for the Soviets to allow the three ‘freedoms’ so core to the Atlantic Charter – freedom of speech, assembly and religion – to be guaranteed to the citizens of the newly occupied territories. In his response, Stalin once again played with Hopkins, saying that in regard to the specific freedoms… they could only be applied… with certain limitations. Eventually, a ‘compromise’ of sorts was agreed, with five ‘democratic’ Poles joining the new provisional government, far from the ‘ideal’ that Roosevelt and Churchill had hoped for in the immediate aftermath of Yalta.

The harsh reality, of course, was that the Soviet Union was already in possession of Poland and most of the other countries bordering the Soviet Union and that the Western powers could do little about this ‘take-over’, a reality that was brought home at the Potsdam Conference. By the time of the Conference in July, the British had already considered and rejected the possibility of imposing upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire. In the wake of the Soviets’ perceived failure to stick to the Yalta agreement, Churchill had ordered British military planners to consider a worst-case, military option against the USSR. Called ‘Operation Unthinkable’, the final report was completed on 22 May. Its conclusion was stark, if somewhat obvious:

If our political object is to be achieved with certainty and with lasting results, the defeat of Russia in a total war will be necessary. The result … is not possible to forecast, but the one thing that is certain is that to win it would take us a very long time.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, was less bland in his diary, writing on 24 May:

This evening went carefully through the Planners’ report on the possibility of taking on Russia should trouble arise on future discussion with her. We were instructed to carry out this investigation. The idea is, of course, fantastic and the chance of success quite impossible. 

After the experience of Operation Barbarossa, the idea of ‘conquering’ the Soviet Union was something that few would contemplate seriously. In any case, Truman had already recognised that Britain was now very much the minor partner in the triangular relationship with the Soviet Union. The new American President had not even bothered to discuss Hopkins’ mission to Moscow beforehand. He also declined Churchill’s invitation to meet together before the Potsdam Conference, to discuss tactics. Truman had also received a number of impassioned suggestions from Churchill about how the relationship with Stalin should be hardened because of the Soviets’ failure to implement the Yalta agreement. In particular, Churchill suggested that the Western Allies should not withdraw from the area of Germany they currently occupied, which lay within the Yalta-agreed Soviet-controlled sphere. He even sent Truman a telegram warning that an iron curtain is being drawn down on their front. But Truman wanted no dramatic confrontation with Stalin, especially one orchestrated by Churchill. The British PM got the impression that Truman was trying to edge him out of matters still more by asking the British to attend the Potsdam Conference only after the Americans had already spent time alone with Stalin. On that basis, said Churchill, he was simply ‘not prepared to attend’. As a result, the Americans agreed that he should be present from the beginning. So Winston Churchill was there to witness the fall of the Iron Curtain and the beginning of the Cold War in Europe. It took forty-five years for the West to win it, but cost far fewer European lives, though many more American ones.


Article by Max Hastings from The Observer Magazine, 7/7/19:



Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. London: BBC Books.

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

Hermann Kinder & Werner Hilgemann (1988), The Penguin Atlas of World History Volume II. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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



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


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



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

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

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


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

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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Three   Leave a comment


Part Three – From Zwickau to Worms: Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer:

Thomas Müntzer was born into modest comfort in Thuringia in 1488 or 1489. When he first came clearly into public view, in his early thirties, Müntzer appears neither as a victim nor as an enemy of social injustice but rather as an ‘eternal student’, extraordinary learned and intensely intellectual. After graduating from university he became a priest and led a restless, wandering life, always choosing places where he could hope to further his studies. Profoundly versed in the Scriptures, he learned Greek and Hebrew, read patristic and scholastic theology and philosophy, also immersing himself in the writings of the German mystics. Yet he was never a pure scholar; his voracious reading was carried on in a desperate attempt to solve a personal problem. For Müntzer was at that time a troubled soul, full of doubts about the truth of Christianity and even about the existence of God but obstinately struggling after certainty, in fact in that labile condition which so often ends in a conversion.

Müntzer came from Zwickau and revived some of the ideas of the earlier ‘prophets’ from that town, but with much greater allure because of his learning, ability and intense enthusiasm. Müntzer held, with the Catholic Church, that the Bible is inadequate without a divinely inspired interpreter, but that interpreter is not the Church nor the pope but the prophet, the new Elijah, the new Daniel, to whom is given the key of David to open the book sealed with seven seals.

Martin Luther, who was some five or six years older than Müntzer, was just then emerging as the most formidable opponent that the Church of Rome had ever known and also, if only incidentally and transiently, as the effective leader of the German nation. In 1519 he had questioned the supremacy of the Pope in public disputation with John Eck in Leipzig and in 1520 he published, and was excommunicated for publishing, the three treatises which formed the manifestos of the German Reformation. During the summer of 1520, he delivered to the printer a sheaf of tracts which are still referred to as his primary works: The Sermon on Good works in May, The Papacy at Rome in June, and The Address to the German Nobility in August. The Babylonian Captivity followed in September and The Freedom of the Christian Man in November. The latter three were more immediately pertinent to the controversy with the Papal Curia.

The most radical of these three in the eyes of contemporaries was the one dealing with the sacraments, entitled  The Babylonian Captivity, with reference to the enslavement of the sacraments of the Church. This assault on Catholic teaching was more devastating than anything that had preceded it: and when Erasmus read the tract, he exclaimed, “the breach is irreparable.” The reason was that the pretensions of the Roman Catholic Church rested so completely on the sacraments as the exclusive channels of grace and upon the prerogatives of the clergy, by whom the sacraments were administered. Luther with one stroke reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two. Confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, and extreme unction were eliminated. The Lord’s Supper and baptism alone remained. According to Luther, a sacrament must have been directly instituted by Christ and must be distinctively Christian. He did not utterly abolish penance, recognising the need for contrition and regarding confession as useful, provided it was not institutionalised. The key point of divergence was with regard to absolution, which he said was only a declaration by a man of what God had decreed in heaven and not a ratification by God of what that man had ruled on earth.

In Luther’s eyes, the Church had made the sacrament of the mass mechanical and magical. He, too, would not subject it to human frailty and would not concede that he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faith was a gift from God, but given when, where and to whom he will and efficacious without the sacrament, whereas the sacrament was not efficacious without faith. On this belief, Luther affirmed:

I may be wrong on indulgencies, but as to the need for faith in the sacraments I will die before I will recant. 

This insistence upon faith diminished the role of the priests who may place a wafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart. Neither is Christ sacrificed in the mass because his sacrifice was made once and for all upon the cross, but God is present in the elements because Christ, being God, declared, “This is my body.” The ‘official’ view called transubstantiation was that the elements retained their accidents of shape, taste, colour and so on, but lose their substance, for which is substituted the substance of God. Luther rejected this position on rational rather than biblical grounds. The sacrament for him was not a chunk of God fallen like a meteorite from heaven. God does not need to fall from heaven because he is everywhere present throughout his creation as a sustaining and animating force, and Christ as God is likewise universal, but his presence is hidden from human eyes. For that reason, God has chosen to declare himself to mankind at three loci of revelation. The first is Christ, in whom the word was made flesh. The second is Scripture, where the word uttered is recorded. The third is the sacrament, in which the Word is manifest in food and drink. The sacrament does not conjure up God as the witch of Endor but reveals him where he is.

Nonetheless, Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper pointed the Church in one direction and his view of baptism pointed it to another. That is why he could be at once to a degree the father of the Congregationalism of the Anabaptists and of the territorial church of the later Evangelicals. This was the product of Luther’s individualism, not that of the Renaissance Humanists, but the fulfilment of the individual’s capacities; it is not the individualism of the late scholastic, who on metaphysical grounds declared that reality consists only of individuals and that aggregates like Church and State are not entities but simply the sum of their components. Luther was not concerned to philosophise about the structures of the Church and State; his insistence was simply that every man must answer for himself to God. That was the extent of his individualism.

Baptism rather than the Lord’s Supper was, for Luther, the sacrament which linked the Church to society. For the medieval Christian community, every child outside the ghetto was by birth a citizen and by baptism a Christian. Regardless of personal conviction, the same persons constituted the State and the Church. An alliance of the two institutions was thus natural. Here was a basis for Christian society. The greatness and the tragedy of Luther were that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporatism of the baptismal font. This doctrinal duality would have made him a troubled spirit in a tranquil age, but his age was not tranquil. Rome had not forgotten him. The lifting of the pressure on him was merely opportunistic, with the papacy waiting for the arrival of the Most Catholic Emperor in Germany,  from Spain,  before resuming its persecution of Luther. On 10 October, Luther received the Papal Bull, Exsurge Domine, excommunicating him.


The Bull was sparse in its reproof. Luther’s views on the mass were condemned only at the point of the cup to the laity. None other of the seven sacraments received notice, except for penance. There was nothing about monastic vows, only a disavowal of Luther’s desire that princes and prelates might suppress the sacks of the mendicants. There was nothing about the priesthood of all believers. The articles centred on Luther’s disparagement of human capacity even after baptism, on his derogation from the power of the pope to bind and loose penalties and sins, from the power of the pope and councils to declare doctrine, from the primacy of the pope and of the Roman Church. The charge of Bohemianism had plainly lodged, because he was condemned on the score of introducing certain of the articles of John Hus. Luther’s articles were not pronounced uniformly heretical but condemned as heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth, respectively. The entire formula was stereotyped and had been used in the condemnation of Hus. Despite his initial blasts against the Bull, Luther’s prevailing mood was expressed in a pastoral letter to a minister who was prompted to leave his post, written in October:

Our warfare is not with flesh or blood, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places, against the world rulers of this darkness. Let us then stand firm and heed the trumpet of the Lord. Satan is fighting, not against us, but against Christ in us. We fight the battles of the Lord. Be strong therefore, if God is for us, who can be against us?…

If you have the spirit, do not leave your post, lest another receive your crown. It is but a little thing that we should die with the Lord, who in our flesh laid down his life for us. We shall rise with him and abide with him in eternity. See then that you do not despise your holy calling. He will come, he will not tarry, who will deliver us from every ill. 


Meanwhile, Luther had already published another mighty manifesto of Reformation in his Address to the German Nobility. The term ‘nobility’ was used, in a broad sense, to cover the ruling classes in Germany from the emperor down. Some contend that in this tract Luther broke with his earlier view of the Church as a persecuted remnant and instead laid the basis for a church allied with and dependent on the State.  Luther adduced three grounds for his appeal. The first was simply that the magistrate was the magistrate, ordained by God to punish evildoers. All that Luther demanded of him was that he should hold the clergy to account before the civil courts, that he should protect citizens against ecclesiastical extortion and that he should vindicate the state in the exercise of its civil functions, free from clerical interference. The theocratic pretentiousness of the Church was to be rejected.

Yet Luther was far more concerned for the purification of the Church than for the emancipation of the state. The second ground was that the Church’s temporal power and inordinate wealth must be stripped away in order to emancipate it from worldly concerns and enable it to better perform its spiritual functions. He used the language of the Christian society in asserting that the temporal authorities are baptised with the same baptism as we, building upon the sociological sacrament administered to every babe born into the community. In such a society, Church and State are mutually responsible for the support and correction of each other. His third ground for the appeal was that magistrates were fellow Christians sharing in the priesthood of all believers, which was made to rest on the lower grade of faith implicit in the baptised infant. Luther’s whole attitude to the reformatory role of the magistrate was essentially medieval, but it was deeply religious in tone. The complaints of Germany were combined with the reform of the Church, and the civil power itself was directed to rely less on the arm of the flesh than upon the hand of the Lord.


Underlying his ‘appeal to Caesar’ was a deep indignation against the corruption of the Church, however, as again and again the pope was shamed by a comparison with Christ (seen in the cartoon by Cranach above). This theme went back through Hus to Wyclif. In contrast to the pope’s view that promises to heretics are not binding, Luther argues that heretics should be vanquished with books, not with burnings. He ended his Address to the German Nobility with an uncompromising appeal to heaven:

O Christ, my lord, look down. Let the day of thy judgment break and destroy the devil’s nest at Rome!

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In the meantime, the papal bull was being executed in Rome and Luther’s books were being burned in the Piazza Navona. The bull was printed and sealed for wider dissemination. The two men charged with this task as papal nuncios were John Eck and Jerome Aleander, a distinguished Humanist and former rector of the University of Paris. But in the Rhineland, the emperor ruled only by virtue of his election. When at Cologne on 12 November Aleander tried to have a bonfire, having gained the consent of archbishop, the executioner refused to proceed without an express imperial mandate. The archbishop asserted his authority, and the books were burned. At Mainz, at the end of the month, the opposition was more violent. Before applying the torch, the executioner asked the assembled crowd whether the books had been legally condemned. When they, with one voice, cried “No!”, he stepped down and refused to act. Aleander again appealed to Albert, the archbishop, and secured his authorisation to destroy a few books the following day. The order was carried out by a gravedigger with no witnesses apart from Aleander and a few women who had brought their geese to market. Aleander was pelted with stones and had to be rescued by the abbot. Ulrich von Hutten came out in verse with an invective both in Latin and German:

 O God, Luther’s books they burn.

Thy godly truth is slain in turn.

Pardon in advance is sold,

And heaven marketed for gold

The German people is bled white

And is not asked to be contrite.


To Martin Luther wrong is done –

O God, be thou our champion.

My goods for him I will not spare,

My life, my blood for him I dare.


Luther’s ‘private’ response to receiving the papal bull, given in his letter to Spalatin, to which he appended a copy of his reply in Latin, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist, was apocalyptic in tone and content:

When since the beginning of the world did Satan ever so rage against God? I am overcome by the magnitude of the horrible blasphemies of this bull. I am almost persuaded by many and weighty arguments that the last day is on the threshold. The Kingdom of Antichrist begins to fall. I see an unsuppressible insurrection coming out of this bull, which the Roman ‘curia’ deserves.

His public pronouncements were also, now, almost equally uncompromising in their millenarianist, direct condemnation of the ‘curia’:

You then, Leo X, you cardinals and the rest of you at Rome, I tell you to your faces: “If this bull has come out in your name then… I call upon you to renounce your diabolical blasphemy and audacious impiety, and, if you will not, we shall all hold your seat as possessed and oppressed by Satan, the damned seat of Antichrist, in the name of Jesus Christ, whom you persecute.”


He added the caveat, however, that he was still not persuaded that the bull was the work of the pope, but rather that of that apostle of impiety, John Eck. Nevertheless, as to the content of his reply, he left his readers in no doubt of his determination to hold to the beliefs he had expressed in it and his previous articles:

It is better that I should die a thousand times than that I should retract one syllable of the condemned articles. And as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.

Two weeks after the appearance of this tract another came out so amazingly different as to make historians wonder if it was written by the same man. It was entitled Freedom of the Christian Man and commenced with a deferential address to Leo X. In it, he issued a disclaimer of personal abusiveness and a statement of faith. He was not fighting a man, but a system. Then followed Luther’s canticle of freedom, but if he supposed that this would mollify the pope, he was naïve. The deferential letter itself denied the primacy of the pope over councils, and the treatise asserted the priesthood of all believers. The pretence that the attack was directed, not against the pope, but against the curia is the device commonly employed by constitutionally minded revolutionaries who do not like to admit that they are rebelling against a head of a  government or church.

Although it was to be many years before Evangelical churches appeared on a territorial basis, there now existed a recognisable Lutheran party among the German ‘nobles’ to whom Luther had appealed. Many of the clergy also joined it, though they clung firmly to ‘the old religion’. It was as a follower of Luther that Thomas Müntzer first broke away from Catholic orthodoxy; all the deeds which have made him famous were done in the midst of the great religious earthquake which first cracked and at length destroyed the massive structure of the medieval Church. Yet he himself abandoned Luther almost as soon as he had found him; it was in ever fiercer opposition to Luther that he worked out and proclaimed his own doctrine.

What Müntzer needed if he was to become a new man, sure of himself and of his aim in life, was not to be found in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.  It was to be found, rather, in the militant and bloodthirsty millenarianism that was unfolded to him when in 1520 he took up a ministry in the town of Zwickau and came into contact with a weaver called Nikla Storch. Zwickau lies close to the Bohemian border, where Storch himself had been born. It was essentially the old Táborite doctrines which were being revived in his teaching. He proclaimed that now, as in the days of the Apostles, God was communicating directly with his Elect; the reason for this was that the Last Days were at hand. First, the Turks must conquer the world and Antichrist must rule over it; but then, and it would be very soon, the Elect would rise up and annihilate all the godless so that the Second Coming could take place and the millennium begin. What most appealed to Müntzer in this programme was the war of extermination which the righteous were to wage against the unrighteous. Abandoning Luther, who had the previous year refused to lead a knights’ crusade with Hutten, he now talked and thought only of the Book of Revelation and of such incidents from the Old Testament of as Elijah’s slaughter of the priests of Baal, Jehu’s slaying of the sons of Ahab and Jael’s assassination of the sleeping Sisera. Contemporaries noted and lamented the change that had come over him, the lust for blood which at times expressed itself in sheer raving. By contrast, for all his use of apocalyptic tropes to attack the papacy, Luther wrote to Spalatin in January 1521:

I am not willing to fight for the gospel with bloodshed… The world is conquered by the Word, and by the Word the Church is served and rebuilt. As Antichrist rose without the hand of man, so without the hand of man will he fall. 

For Müntzer, the Elect must prepare the way for the Millennium. Like Luther, however, he believed that he who would be saved must be prepared to suffer as the historical Christ had done, must be purged of all self-will and freed from everything that binds him to the world and to created beings. ‘The Cross’ may include sickness and poverty and persecution, all of which must be borne in patience, but above all, they will include intense mental agonies, weariness with the world and with oneself, loss of hope, despair, terror. According to Müntzer, but also in traditional doctrine, only when this point has been reached, when the soul has been stripped utterly naked, can direct communication with God take place. Such beliefs had been held by many Medieval Catholic mystics, but when Müntzer came to speak of the outcome of this suffering, he followed an altogether less orthodox tradition. For him, once ‘the living Christ’ enters the soul it is for evermore; the man so favoured becomes a vessel of the Holy Spirit. Müntzer even speaks of his ‘becoming God’; endowed with perfect insight into the divine will and living in perfect conformity with it, such a man is incontestably qualified to discharge the divinely appointed eschatological mission. That is precisely what Müntzer claimed for himself.

As soon as Storch had enabled him to find himself Müntzer changed his way of life, abandoning reading and the pursuit of learning, condemning the Humanists who abounded among Luther’s followers, ceaselessly propagating his eschatological faith among the poor. In the middle of the fifteenth-century silver-mines had been opened up at Zwickau, turning the town into an important industrial centre, three times the size of Dresden. From all over southern and central Germany labourers streamed to the mines, with the result that there was a chronic surplus of manpower. Moreover, the uncontrolled exploitation of the silver ore resulted in an inflation which reduced all the skilled workers, including those in the traditional weaving industry, to near-penury. A few months after he arrived at Zwickau, Müntzer became a preacher at the church where the weavers had their special altar, and he used the pulpit to denounce the local preacher, a friend of Luther’s, who enjoyed the favour of the well-to-do burghers. Before long the whole town was divided into two hostile camps and the antagonism between them was becoming so sharp that violent disorders seemed imminent.

Müntzer was readily able to find support for his view of the spirit in the Scripture itself, where it is said that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (II Cor. 3:6). Luther replied that of course the letter without the spirit is dead, but the two are no more to be divorced than the soul is to be separated from the body. The real menace of Müntzer in Luther’s eyes was that he destroyed the uniqueness of Christian revelation in the past by his elevation of revelation in the present. In his own experience, Luther had no great contemporary revelation of his own. On the contrary, in times of despondency, the advice to rely upon the spirit was for him a counsel of despair, since within he could find only utter blackness. In such times, only the assurance he received from the written Word of God of the stupendous act of God in Christ would suffice. Luther freely avowed his weakness and his need for historic revelation. Had Müntzer drawn no practical consequences from his view, Luther would have been less outraged, but Müntzer proceeded to use the gift of the Spirit as a basis for the formation of a church. He is the progenitor of sectarian Protestant theocracies, based not as in Judaism primarily on blood and soil, nor as in Catholicism on sacramentalism, but rather on inner experience and the infusion of the Spirit. Those who are thus reborn can recognise each other and can join a covenant of the Elect, whose mission is to erect God’s kingdom.

Müntzer did not expect the elect to enter into their inheritance without a struggle. They would have to slaughter the ungodly. At this point, Luther was horrified because the sword is given to the magistrate, not the minister, let alone to the saints. In the struggle, Müntzer recognised that many of the godly would fall, and he was constantly preaching on suffering and cross-bearing as a mark of the elect. Luther was often taunted as “Dr Easychair and Dr Pussyfoot,” basking in the favour of the princes. His reply was that the outward cross is neither to be sought nor evaded. The constant cross is suffering within. So, who was really the champion of the inner spiritual life?

Meanwhile, Luther was himself facing a divided public opinion. Those who were for him were numerous, powerful and vocal. Aleander, the papal nuncio in Germany, reported that nine-tenths of the Germans cried “Luther” and the other one-tenth, “Death to the pope.” This was undoubtedly an exaggeration as far as the Germans were concerned, but even if it were true, there was by now a middle party, both within the German states and more broadly in Europe, headed personally by Erasmus, who, despite his statement that the breach was irreparable, did not desist from efforts at mediation and even penned a memorandum proposing the appointment by the emperor and the kings of England and Hungary of an impartial tribunal. The Erasmians as a party sensed less than their leader the depth of the cleavage between Luther and the Church and between Luther and themselves.

Curiously, however, some of the greatest obstructionists were in the Vatican, because the pope had seen his worst fears realized in the election of Charles as emperor, and was trying to curb his power by supporting France. But Charles, for all his Spanish orthodoxy, knew how to use Luther as a weapon in this power struggle. At the same time, Aleander was intimidated by Hutten’s fulminating, and when the pope sent his bull of excommunication against both Luther and Hutten, Aleander withheld the publication and sent it back to Rome to have Hutten’s name removed. Such communications took months, which explains why Luther was actually outlawed by the empire before he was formally excommunicated by the Church.

Where, how and by whom his case should be handled was, therefore, the dilemma which was faced by Charles V. A decision was reached upon the point on 4 November 1520, after his coronation at Aachen, when he went to confer with ‘Uncle Frederick’ the Wise, who was marooned by gout in Cologne. Frederick secured an agreement from Charles that Luther would not be condemned without a hearing. The University of Wittenberg promptly pointed to the possibility of a hearing before the forthcoming Diet of Worms, before the assembled German nation. Frederick transmitted the proposal to the emperor’s counsellors and received a reply from His Majesty a reply dated 28 November addressed to his “beloved Uncle Frederick” in which he invited Luther to defend his views at Worms. The appeal to Caesar had been heard, the invitation marking an amazing reversal of policy. The Defender of the Faith, who had been burning Luther’s books, now invited their author to a hearing. Had the emperor been won over by Erasmus’ policy? Had some disquieting political news disposed him to bait the pope and cultivate the Germans? His motives elude historians. The invitation was issued at the end of November, but Luther did not actually appear at the diet until the April of 1521.


As the princes and nobles began to arrive in Worms at Epiphany, Charles gave Frederick the Wise an assurance that he would take personal responsibility for Luther’s case. When Luther received this news, he replied to Frederick that he was heartily glad that His Majesty will take to himself this affair, which is not mine but that of the whole German nation. While Luther’s coming was awaited, a lampoon was published in Worms, entitled the Litany of the Germans:

Christ hear the Germans; Christ hear the Germans. From evil counselors deliver Charles, O Lord. From poison on the way to Worms deliver Martin Luther, preserve Ulrich von Hutten, O Lord. Suffer not thyself to be crucified afresh. Purge Aleander, O Lord. The nuncios working against Luther at Worms, smite from heaven. O Lord Christ, hear the Germans.


Had Luther been prepared to abandon the attack on the sacraments he had made in The Babylonian Captivity, he might indeed have rallied a united German nation for the reduction of papal power and extortion. The diet might have wrung from the pope the sort of concessions already granted to the strong nation-states of France, Spain and England. Schism might have been avoided, and religious war could have been averted. To a man like Frederick, this compromise proposed by the Erasmians must have seemed most appealing, but he was also resolved to make no overtures which would give the emperor an opportunity to evade his newly accepted responsibility. So it was that on the sixteenth of April, Luther entered Worms in a Saxon two-wheeled cart with a few companions. He was examined by an official of the Archbishop of Trier, who confronted him with a pile of his books and asked whether he had written them and whether he wanted to defend or retract all or part of them. 


He asked for time to consider his response and was recalled at six the following evening, when the same question was put to him. He answered:

Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

The earliest printed version added, before ‘God help me’, the words:

Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.


These words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been moved to write them down. The emperor then called in the electors and a number of the princes to ask their opinions. They requested time to reflect before responding. “Very well,” he said, “I will give you my opinion,” and he read a statement from a paper that he himself had composed in French:

A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. Therefore I am resolved to stake my lands, my friends, my body, my blood, my life and my soul. Not only I, but you of this noble German nation, would be forever disgraced if by our negligence not only heresy but the very suspicion of heresy were to survive… I will proceed against him as a notorious heretic, and ask you to declare yourselves as you promised me.

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On the following day the electors declared themselves fully in accord with the emperor, but out of six, only four signed the declaration. The dissenters were Ludwig of the Palatinate and Frederick of Saxony. On the sixth of May, the Emperor presented to a diminishing diet the final draft of the Edict of Worms, prepared by Aleander. Luther was charged with attacking the seven sacraments after the manner of ‘the damned Bohemians’. The Edict of Worms, passed by a secular tribunal entrusted with a case of heresy at the instance of Lutherans and against the opposition of the papists, was at once repudiated by the Lutherans as having been passed by only a rump, and was sponsored by the papists because it was a confirmation of the Catholic faith. The Church of Rome, which had so strenuously sought to prevent turning the Diet of Worms into an ecclesiastical council, became in the light of the outcome the great vindicator of the pronouncement of a secular tribunal on heresy. Now an outlaw, on his way home to Wittenberg he was taken into refuge in the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick of Saxony. There he devoted his energies to translating the New Testament from Greek into German, in the tradition of Wyclif, so that all Germans might be able to read it for themselves.


Above: Luther’s room at the Wartburg, where he translated the New Testament.

Meanwhile, that same month, the Town Council of Zwickau had intervened to dismiss the troublesome newcomer, Thomas Münzer; whereupon a large section of the populace, under Storch’s leadership, rose in revolt. The rising was put down, and many arrests were made, including more than fifty weavers. Müntzer himself went into exile in Bohemia, apparently in the hope of finding some Táborite groups there. In Prague he preached with the help of an interpreter; he also published in German, Czech and Latin a manifesto announcing the founding of a new church in Bohemia which was to consist entirely of the Elect and which would, therefore, be directly inspired by God. His own role he now defined in terms of the same eschatological parable of the wheat and the tares which had been invoked during the English Peasants’ Revolt:

Harvest-time is here, so God himself has hired me for his harvest. I have sharpened my scythe, for my thoughts are most strongly fixed on the truth, and my lips, hands, skin, hair,soul, body, life curse the unbelievers.

Müntzer’s appeal to the Bohemians was a failure and he was expelled from Prague. For the next couple of years, he wandered from place to place in central Germany, in great poverty but sustained by an unshakable confidence in his prophetic mission. He no longer used his academic titles but signed himself Christ’s messenger. His very hardships assumed in his eyes a messianic value:

Let my sufferings be a model for you. Let the tares all puff themselves up as much as ever they like, they will still have to go under the flail along with the pure wheat. The living God is sharpening his scythe in me, so that later I can cut down the red poppies and the blue cornflowers.

His wanderings came to an end when, in 1523, he was invited to take up a ministry at the small Thuringian town of Alstedt. There he married, created the first liturgy in the German language, translated Latin hymns into the vernacular and established a reputation as a preacher which extended throughout central Germany. Peasants from the surrounding countryside, above all some hundreds of miners from the Mansfeld copper-mines, came regularly to hear him. As many as two thousand outsiders flocked to his preaching. Together with the residents of Alstedt, these people provided him with a following which he set about turning into a revolutionary organisation, the League of the Elect. This league, consisting in the main of uneducated, was Müntzer’s answer to the university which had always been the centre of Luther’s influence. Now spiritual illumination was to oust the learning of the scribes; Alstedt was to replace Wittenberg and become the centre of a new Reformation which was to be both total and final and which was to usher in the Millennium. He was able to report thirty units ready to slaughter the ungodly…

(…to be continued).

Appendix: From R. Stupperich’s article (1977) in The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing. 






Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Two.   Leave a comment

Below: Conflict in the sixteenth century, a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer


Part Two – Martin Luther, Humanism and Nationalism:

The late fifteenth century saw a consolidation of many European states and a coalescence of Europe into the political contours which were to shape it for almost four hundred years, until the crisis of nationalism in the nineteenth century. In the southwest, the Spanish state emerged with the final conquest of Granada from the Muslim Moors in 1492 and the Union of the crowns of Aragon and Castille. The French kings continued the process of expanding the royal domain, until by 1483 only the Duchy of Brittany remained more or less independent, and even this was absorbed in the early sixteenth century. England had lost all its lands in France, except for Calais, and was racked by a bitter civil war from 1453 to 1487, from which it began to emerge under the Welsh Tudor dynasty from 1485 onwards as a maritime power, whose interests in terms of territorial expansion lay outside Europe.


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Above: King Matthias Hunting at Vajdahunyád. This most impressive Transylvanian castle was the residence of the Hunyádi dynasty and seat of their immense estates.

In the East, Hungary’s power and influence grew in the reign of Matthias Corvinus from 1458 until 1490. Corvinus was a renaissance ruler who promoted learning, but he also had to resist the Turkish advance. He maintained a largely defensive attitude, seeking to preserve his kingdom without trying to push back the Ottomans to any great extent. His main attention was directed westwards. With the standing army he had developed, he hoped to become the crown of Bohemia and become Holy Roman Emperor. Bohemia remained divided as a result of the Hussite Wars and in 1468 Corvinus obtained Papal support to conduct a crusade against its Hussite ruler, George Podebrady. This led to the partition of the Bohemian kingdom. Corvinus gained Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia as well as the title ‘King of Bohemia’, though not Bohemia itself. Corvinus was opposed by the Emperor Frederick III (1440-93) who had been elected ruler of Hungary in 1439 by a group of nobles. Nevertheless, Corvinus was successful, in gaining Lower Austria and Styria from Austria, and transferring his capital to Vienna. The Hungarian state developed considerably under Matthias Corvinus, although he continued to face opposition from nobles concerned about their privileges.


Portrait of Matthias Corvinus from the Philostratus Codex, c. 1487-1490


The beginnings of the primacy of the nation-state are conventionally traced to the early sixteenth century. A new type of king arose across, like Matthias Corvinus, called the Renaissance Prince. These monarchs attacked the powers of the nobles and tried to unite their countries. In England, this process was accelerated by the eventual victory of the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, but on the continent, it was much slower. The mercantile classes were generally hostile to the warlike feudal nobles, who interfered with and interrupted their trade, so they tended to support the king against the nobles. A new sense of unity arose, where local languages and dialects merged into national languages and, through the advent of the printing press, national literatures developed.

For a while, however, the most successful states appeared to be multi-national ones, such as the Ottoman Empire in the east, or the universal monarchy built up by Charles V, encompassing Spain, the Netherlands and the Austrian dominions of the Habsburgs. The small states of the Holy Roman Empire, the patchwork of cities and territories, also contained some of the most affluent parts of Europe. Charles of Habsburg inherited, by quirks of marriage and early deaths, the Burgundian Netherlands (1506), the united Spanish crowns (1516), and the lands of his grandfather Maximilian of Austria (1519), after which he succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor. The Imperial title, the secular equivalent of the Papacy, still carried immense prestige, giving its holder pre-eminence over lesser monarchs.

The Empire was a waning but still imposing legacy of the Middle Ages. Since the office of emperor was elective, any European prince was eligible, but the electors were predominantly German and therefore preferred a German. Yet they were realistic enough to recognise that no German had sufficient strength in his own right to sustain the office. They were, therefore, ready to accept the head of one of the great powers, and the choice lay between Francis of France and Charles of Spain. Francis I tried in vain to secure election, seeing the danger of his country being encircled by a ring of hostile territories. The Pope objected to either, however, because an accretion of power on one side or the other would destroy that balance of power on which papal security depended. When the Germans despaired of a German, the pope threw his support to Frederick the Wise, but Frederick himself, sensible of his inadequacies, defeated himself by voting for the Habsburg.

For centuries the seven Electors had chosen the Habsburg heir, but previously he had been German, or at least German-speaking; At the age of just twenty, Charles I of Spain became Emperor Charles V on 28 June 1519. Francis pursued his legacy of French claims to Milan and Naples, and sought to extend his eastern frontier towards the Rhine. He was an ambitious man, but also frivolous, whereas Charles was regarded as harder-working. The rivalry between the two men was to dominate European politics from 1519 to 1547. While Charles emerged as the more powerful of the two, he had many more problems to distract him. Winning the election was only the beginning of his trials, as Charles now faced an immense task of keeping his domains united.  The main source of his power and wealth continued to lie in the Netherlands, in the seventeen separate provinces that he had inherited from his father, Philip the Handsome, in 1506. The great commercial wealth of these provinces made their taxes particularly valuable, even if their independent-mindedness meant that Charles had to treat them with extreme caution. Besides the territories he had inherited, Charles added several more Dutch provinces, Milan, Mexico and Peru to his empire at home and overseas.


Europe in the time of Henry VIII, Charles I of Spain and Francis I of France

The Map above shows the extent of Charles’ scattered empire; it included many peoples, each proud of their own traditions, language, and separate government. Even in Spain, only the royal will bound together Castile with Granada and Aragon, which, in turn, was made up of the four distinct states of Aragon, Valencia, Catalonia and Navarre. There was a serious revolt in Aragon itself in 1520. Besides Spain, he had to assert his nominal authority over the independent princes, bishops, knights and city-states that formed the Holy Roman Empire.  If all this wasn’t enough to contend with, he was opposed by successive popes, who resented his power in Italy despite his championship of the Roman Church. Within the Church, from 1517, reformers like Martin Luther had begun to challenge the authority of both the ecclesiastical and secular leaders of the Empire, leading to further disunity both within and between the German states.


Above: The Central European Habsburg Empire of Charles V

The rise of Protestantism in Germany in the first half of the sixteenth century placed an additional strain on his European empire. Charles failed to suppress it by force, but held firm to Catholicism even though, in Germany at least, it might have been politically expedient to convert to Lutheranism. In 1517-19, Martin Luther had challenged the authority of the Pope in tolerating the abuses of the Church, and a considerable movement for reform had grown around his protest at Wittenberg. His work and that of subsequent reformers was greatly stimulated by the translation of the Bible into ‘high’ German, which Luther himself completed in 1534, and by its printing and widespread publication. This religious movement coincided with the rise of national feeling. Renaissance princes, eager to gain complete domination over their territories, were supported in a breach with the Pope by their subjects, who regarded Papal authority as foreign interference. The wealth and lands of the Church, combined by the heavy exactions it made on its adherents, had provoked great dissatisfaction among princes, merchants and peasants.


In 1517, the impulsive and headstrong Augustinian friar and Professor of Theology at Wittenberg had denounced the sale of indulgences by unprincipled agents of the Papal envoy, Tetzel, and had won enthusiastic support. The Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan to interview Luther at Augsburg (I have written about these early disputations over indulgences in more detail elsewhere on this site). When he got word that Cajetan had been empowered by the Pope to arrest him, Luther escaped the city gates by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride to Nürnberg in his cowl, without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived back in Wittenberg on 30 October, exactly a year after he had first posted his 95 Theses to the Castle church door. Cajetan then demanded that Frederick the Wise should either send  Luther bound to Rome or else banish him from his territories. Luther made matters even more difficult for his prince by publishing his own version of his interview with the Cardinal. There was no longer any attempt to explain the papal decree against him in any favourable sense. Instead, he declared that it was emphatically false, and contrasted the ambiguous decretal of a mortal pope with the clear testimonies of Holy Scripture:

The Apostolic Legate opposed me with the thunder of his majesty and told me to recant. I told him the pope abused Scripture. I will honour the sanctity of the pope, but I will adore the sanctity of Christ and the truth. I do not deny this new monarchy of the Roman Church which has arisen in our generation, but I deny that you cannot be a Christian without being subject to the decrees of the Roman pontiff… I resist those who in the name of the Roman Church wish to institute Babylon.

His accusation that the Roman pontiff and curia were instituting Babylon introduced an apocalyptic tone into the dispute. On 28 November, Luther lodged with a notary an appeal to the pope for a general council, declaring that such a council, legitimately called in the Holy Spirit, could better represent the Catholic Church than the pope, who, being a man, was able to err, sin and lie. Not even St Peter, he pointed out, was above this infirmity.  Luther had the appeal printed, requesting that all the copies should be withheld from publication unless and until he was actually banned. The printer, however, disregarded the embargo and gave them out immediately to the public. Pope Julius II had ruled that a direct appeal to a council, without papal consent, constituted in itself an act of heresy. Luther had placed himself in an exposed situation and had also embarrassed his prince. Frederick the Wise considered himself to be a most Catholic prince. He was addicted to the cult of relics, devoted to indulgences and quite sincere in his claim that he was not in a position to judge Luther’s teaching. That was why he had founded the University of Wittenberg and why he so often turned to it for advice on matters juristic and theological. Luther was one of the doctors of that university, commissioned to instruct his prince in matters of faith.

As far as Frederick was concerned, if the pope declared Luther a heretic, that would settle the matter, but the pontiff had not yet pontificated. Neither had the theological faculty at Wittenberg repudiated their colleague. Many scholars throughout Germany believed Luther to be right. Frederick differed from many other princes in that he never asked how to extend his territories nor even how to preserve his dignities. His only question was, what is my duty as a Christian prince? He wrote to the Emperor beseeching him either to drop the case or to grant a hearing before unimpeachable judges in Germany. He also sent to Cajetan the only document ever sent to the Roman curia on Luther’s behalf:

We are sure that you acted paternally towards Luther, but we understand that he was not shown sufficient cause to revoke. There are learned men in the universities who hold that his teaching has not been shown to be unjust, unchristian, or heretical. The few who think so are jealous of his attainments. If we understand his doctrine to be impious or untenable, we would not defend it. Our whole purpose is to fulfill the office of a Christian prince. Therefore we hope that Rome will pronounce on the question. As for sending him to Rome or banishing him, that we will do only after he has been convicted of heresy. … He should be shown in what respect he is a heretic and not condemned in advance. We will not lightly allow ourselves to be drawn into error nor to be made disobedient to the Holy See. 

Prince Frederick also appended a copy of a letter from the University of Wittenberg in Luther’s defence. Luther himself wrote to his mentor and confidant, George Spalatin, to express his joy at reading the prince’s letter to the Papal Legate. Cajetan knew that, although Luther was a vexation, he was not yet a heretic, since heresy involved a rejection of the established dogma of the Church, and the doctrine of indulgences had not yet received an official papal definition. On 9 November 1518, the bull Cum Postquam definitely clarified many of the disputed points. Indulgences were declared only to apply to penalty and not to guilt, which must first have been remitted through the sacrament of penance. In the case of the penalties of purgatory, the pope could do no more than present to God the treasury of the superfluous merits of Christ and the saints by way of petition. This decretal terminated some of the worst abuses Luther had complained about in his Ninety-Five Theses.

Had it appeared earlier, the controversy might conceivably have been terminated, but in the interim Luther had attacked not only papal power but also the infallibility of the Pope. He had also questioned the biblical basis for the sacrament of penance and had rejected part of canon law as being inconsistent with Scripture. For his part, the Pope had called him ‘a son of iniquity’ and the loyal Dominicans had already declared him to be ‘a notorious heretic’. The conciliatory policy commenced in December 1518 was prompted by political considerations which now became more marked due to the death of Emperor Maximilian and the need to elect a successor as Holy Roman Emperor. The election of Charles V at the end of June 1519 made no great difference to the situation with Luther, because for over a year Charles was too occupied in Spain to concern himself with Germany, where Frederick remained the pivotal figure. The pope still could not afford to alienate him unduly over Luther and so his conciliatory policy continued.

Tetzel was made the scapegoat for the controversy over indulgences. Cajetan’s new German assistant, Milititz summoned him to a hearing and charged that he was extravagant in travelling with two horses and a carriage, and that he had two illegitimate children. Tetzel retired to a convent where he died of chagrin. Luther wrote sympathetically to him; you didn’t start this racket: The child had another father. 



Meanwhile, the University of Wittenberg was becoming known as a Lutheran institution. Prominent among the faculty were Carlstadt and Melanchthon. Carlstadt, a senior colleague to Luther, was erudite but sometimes recklessly outspoken and more radical. Melanchthon was gentler, younger (at twenty-one) a prodigy of learning, already enjoying a pan-European reputation. These two reformers ‘in their own right’ soon became the leaders of the Reformation in Wittenberg. Against them, the papacy found a worthy academic in John Eck, a professor from the University of Ingolstadt, who had already published a refutation of Luther’s theses. He had been Luther’s friend, a humanist and a German. Eck also succeeded in persuading the University of Leipzig to sponsor him against Wittenberg, which added the internal political rivalry of ducal and electoral Saxony to the mix. Duke George, the patron of Leipzig, agreed that Eck should debate with Carlstadt at Leipzig. Carlstadt had already launched a determined defence of Luther and a virulent attack on Eck, but the latter was in no mood to accept ‘second best’. He openly baited Luther by challenging his assertions that the Roman Church in the days of Constantine had not been seen as superior to the other churches and that the popes had not always been seen as in apostolic succession to Peter, and that therefore the papacy was a relatively recent human institution, not a divine one.


Above: Philip Melanchthon’s study in his home in Wittenberg


Clearly, this debate was between Eck and Luther, but the bishop of the diocese interposed a prohibition. Duke George said that all he wanted to know was whether as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. He reminded the bishop that…

Disputations have been allowed from ancient times, even concerning the Holy Trinity. What good is a soldier if he is not allowed to fight, a sheep dog if he may not bark, and a theologian if he may not debate? Better spend money to support old women who can knit than theologians who cannot discuss.

Luther set himself to prepare for the debate. Since he had asserted that only in the decretals of the previous four hundred years could the claims of papal primacy be established, he must devote himself to a study of the decretals. As he worked, his conclusions grew even more radical. He wrote to a friend in January that…

Eck is fomenting new wars against me. He may yet drive me to a serious attack upon the Romanists. So far I have been merely trifling.

In March, Luther confided to Spalatin:

I am studying the papal decretals for my debate. I whisper this in your ear, “I do not know whether the pope is Antichrist or his apostle, so does he in his decretals corrupt and crucify Christ, that is, the truth.”

The reference to Antichrist was ominous. Luther was to find it easier to convince people that the pope was Antichrist than that ‘the just shall live by faith’. The suspicion which Luther did not yet dare to breathe in the open linked him with the medieval millenarian sectaries who had revived and transformed the theme of Antichrist, the figure invented by the Jews and developed in early Christian eschatology in times of captivity and persecution to derive comfort from their calamities on the grounds that the Advent or Second Coming of the Messiah would be retarded by the machinations of an Anti-Messiah, whose predominant evil would reach a peak before the Saviour would come. The gloomiest picture of the present thus became the most encouraging vision for the future. The Book of Revelation had added the details that before ‘the End of Time’ two witnesses would testify and suffer martyrdom. Then the Archangel Michael would appear, together with a figure with flaming eyes upon a white horse, to cast the beast into the abyss. How the theme was dealt with in Luther’s day is graphically illustrated in a woodcut from the Nürnberg Chronicle (below):


In previous posts on this site, I have examined how the theme became very popular in the late Middle Ages among Flagellants, Wyclifites and Hussites, especially the more radical Táborites in Bohemia, who increasingly identified the popes with the Antichrist soon to be overthrown.  Luther was, therefore, aligning himself with these sectaries, with one significant difference. Whereas they had identified particular popes with Antichrist, due to their apparently evil lives as well as other contemporary events, Luther held that every pope was Antichrist even if personally exemplary in their conduct, because Antichrist was for him a collective symbol of penultimate evil, the institution of the papacy and the Roman curia, a system which corrupts the the truth of Christ and the true Church. This explains how Luther could repeatedly address Leo X in terms of personal respect only a few days after blasting him as Antichrist. Nevertheless, to one who had been, and remained, so devoted to the Holy Father as the chief vicar of Christ, the thought that he, in person, might be Christ’s great opponent was difficult to reconcile. At the same time, it was also a comforting thought, for the doom of Antichrist was ensured by Scripture. If Luther should be martyred like the two witnesses, his executioner would soon be demolished by the hand of God. It was no longer merely a fight between men, but against the principalities and powers and the ruler over this darkness on earth.


Meanwhile, between 4-14 July Luther engaged in the Leipzig debate with Eck. The Wittenbergers arrived a few days after Eck; Luther, Carlstadt and Melanchthon with other doctors and two hundred students armed with battle-axes. Eck was provided with a bodyguard of seventy-six men by the town council, to protect him from the Wittenbergers and the Bohemians who were believed to be amongst them. The concourse was so great that Duke George placed the auditorium of the Castle at their disposal. After a week of theological debate between Eck and Carlstadt, Luther answered a rhetorical question from Duke George; what does it all matter whether the pope is by divine right or by human right? He remains the pope just the same. Luther used the intervention to insist that by denying the divine origin of the papacy he was not counselling a withdrawal of obedience from the Pontiff. For Eck, however, the claim of the Pope to unquestioning obedience rested on the belief that his office was divinely instituted. Eck then attacked Luther’s teaching in its similarities with that of Wyclif and Hus, both of whom had been condemned as heretics in the early fifteenth century:

“I see” said Eck “that you are following the damned and pestiferous errors of John Wyclif, who said ‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Church is above all others.’ And you are espousing the pestilent errors of John Hus, who claimed that Peter neither was nor is the head of the Holy Catholic Church.”

“I repulse the charge of Bohemianism,” roared Luther. “I have never approved of their schism. Even though they had divine right on their side, they ought not to have withdrawn from the Church, because the highest divine right is unity and charity.”

Eck was driving Luther onto dangerous territory, especially at Leipzig, because Bohemia was close by and, within living memory, the Hussites had invaded and ravaged the Saxon lands thereabouts. Luther used an interlude in proceedings to go to the university library and read the acts of the Council of Constance, at which Hus had been condemned to be burnt. To his amazement, he found among the reproved articles the following statements of Hus:

The one holy universal Church is the company of the predestined… The universal Holy Church is one, as the number of the elect is one. 

He recognised the theology of these statements as deriving directly from St Augustine. When the assembly reconvened, Luther declared:

 Among the articles of John Hus, I find many which are plainly Christian and evangelical, which the universal church cannot condemn… As for the article of Hus that ‘it is not necessary for salvation to believe the Roman Church is superior to all others’, I do not care whether this comes from Wyclif or Hus. I know that innumerable Greeks have been saved though they never heard this article. It is not in the power of the Roman pontiff or of the Inquisition to construct new articles of faith. No believing Christian can be coerced beyond holy writ. By divine law we are forbidden to believe anything which is not established by divine Scripture or manifest revelation. One of the canon lawyers has said that the opinion of a single private man has more weight than that of a Roman pontiff or an ecclesiastical council if grounded on a better authority or reason. I cannot believe that the Council of Constance would condemn these propositions of Hus… The Council did not say that all the articles of Hus were heretical. It said that ‘some were heretical, some erroneous, some blasphemous, some presumptuous, some sedtious and some offensive to pious respectively… 

Luther went on, now in German, to reiterate that a council cannot make divine right out of that which by nature is not divine right and make new articles of faith, and that a simple layman armed with Scripture is… above a pope or a council without it. Articles of faith must come from Scripture, for the sake of which we should reject pope and councils. Eck retorted, in a manner which conjured up memories of the Hussite hordes ravaging Saxon lands, that this is the Bohemian virus, in that the Reverend Father, against the holy Council of the Constance and the consensus of all Christians does not fear to call certain articles of Wyclif and Hus most Christian and evangelical. 

After the Leipzig debate, Eck came upon a new fagot for Luther’s pyre. “At any rate,” he crowed, “no one is hailing me as the Saxon Hus.” Two letters to Luther had been intercepted, from Hussites of Prague, in which they said, “What Hus was once in Bohemia you, Martin, are in Saxony. Stand firm.” When they did eventually reach Luther, they were accompanied by a copy of Hus’s work On the Church. “I agree now with more articles of Hus than I did at Leipzig,” Luther commented. In February of the following year, he had come to the conclusion that “we are all Hussites without knowing it.” For Eck and the Roman Pontiff and curia, however, ‘Hussite’ remained a byword for ‘heretic’, and Luther was indeed known amongst them as ‘the Saxon Hus’. Luther was still in mortal danger, and no doubt remembered how his predecessor had been given an imperial pass to Constance and never returned.

By February 1520, Luther had also become a national figure in Germany, as a result of the Leipzig debate. His endorsement of Hus was not likely to have brought him acclaim among Germans more widely, except that it cast him in the role of an insurgent heretic who had held his argument against one of the most renowned theologians of his time. But it may well have been the dissemination of his writings which proved more influential in making him not only a national but also an international figure. In addition to reaching Spain and England, the Swiss reformer Zwingli had also been distributing his printed sermons around Zurich and the Swiss cantons. Such acclaim rapidly made Luther the head of a movement which has come to be known as the Reformation. As it took on shape, it was bound to come into contact with those two great philosophical movements of his day, the Renaissance and nationalism.


The Renaissance was a many-sided phenomenon in which a central place was occupied by the ideal commonly labelled ‘Humanism’. Although a synthesis between the classical and the Christian had already been achieved by St Augustine, a menace to Christianity was still implicit in the movement because it was centred on mankind, because the search for truth in any quarter might lead to ‘relativism’ and because the philosophies of antiquity had no place for the distinctive tenets of Christianity: the Incarnation and the Cross. Yet, at several points, Humanism and the Reformation could form an alliance. Both demanded the right of free investigation. The Humanists included the Bible and the biblical languages in the curriculum of reviving antiquity, and Luther’s battle for the right understanding of Paul’s teaching on the Hebrews appeared to them, as to Luther himself, as a continuation of the campaign of the great German Hebraist, Reuchlin, over the freedom of scholarship (see the cartoon below).


The deepest affinity appeared at that point where the Renaissance man was not so sure of himself, when he began to wonder whether his valour might not be thwarted by the goddess Fortuna or whether his destiny had not already been determined by the stars. Here was Luther’s problem of God the capricious and God the adverse. Renaissance man, confronted by this enigma and having no deep religion of his own, was commonly disposed to find solace less in Luther’s stupefying irrationalities than in the venerable authority of the Church. Erasmus was closer to Luther than any other figure of the Renaissance because he was so Christian. His ideal, like that of Luther, was to revive the Christian consciousness of Europe through the dissemination of the sacred writings, and to that end, it was Erasmus who first made available the New Testament in its Greek original. The volume reached Wittenberg just as Luther was working on the ninth chapter of Romans, and thereafter it became his working tool. It was from this tool that he learned of the inaccuracy of the Vulgate rendering of ‘do penance’ rather than ‘be penitent’. Luther and Erasmus had much in common. Both insisted that the Church of their day had relapsed into the Judaistic legalism castigated by St Paul. Christianity, said Erasmus, has been made to consist not in loving one’s neighbour, but in abstaining from butter and cheese during Lent.



Nevertheless, Erasmus was wary of giving his unreserved support to Luther. He was nostalgic for the old unities of Europe, the multi-cultural states and empires. His dream was that Christian Humanism might serve as a check upon the growth of nationalism. The threat of war and division implicit in the Reformation frightened him, and he had good cause for this, as German nationalism was the second great movement to attach itself to the Reformation, just as Bohemian nationalism had previously attached itself to the cause of the Hussites. Germany was retarded in the process of national unification as compared with Spain, France, England and even Bohemia. Germany had no centralised government and no obvious capital city. The Holy Roman Empire no more than approximated a German national state because it was at once too large, since any European prince was eligible for the highest office, and too small, because of the dominance of the Habsburg dynasty and, by 1519, their huge European and overseas empire.


Germany was segmented into small and overlapping jurisdictions of princes and bishops. The free cities became entangled in shifting alliances with the territories as well as, for trading purposes, with the Hanseatic League. The knights were a restive class seeking to arrest the waning of their power, and the peasants were likewise restive because they wanted to have a political role commensurate with their economic importance. No government and no class was able to weld Germany into one. Dismembered and retarded, she was derided by the Italians and treated by the papacy as a private cow. Resentment against Rome was more intense than in countries where national governments curbed papal exploitation. The representatives of German nationalism who for several years in some measure affected Luther’s career were Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingen. Hutten was himself both a knight and a Humanist. He illustrates the diversity of Humanism, which could at once be internationalist in Erasmus, and nationalist in him.

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Hutten did much to create the concept of German nationalism and to construct the picture of the ideal German, who should repel the enemies of the fatherland and erect a culture able to vie with the Italian culture. In the opening stages of Luther’s skirmishes with Eck at Leipzig, Hutten looked on the controversy as a squabble between monks, but he soon realised that Luther’s words had a ring of his own about them. Luther, too, resented the fleecing of Germany, Italian chicanery and duplicity. Luther wished that St Peter’s might lie in ashes rather than that Germany should be despoiled. Hutten’s picture of the Romantic German could be enriched by Luther’s concept of a mystical depth in the German soul exceeding that of other peoples.


In August 1520 Luther intimated that, due to the promises of support he had received from Hutten and Sickingen, including an offer to ride to his aid with a hundred knights, he would attack the papacy as Antichrist. He also wanted the curia to know that, if by their fulminations he was exiled from Saxony, he would not go to Bohemia, but would find asylum in Germany itself, where he might be more obnoxious than he would be under the surveillance of the prince and fully occupied with his teaching duties. While the assurance of protection from the German knights undoubtedly emboldened him, the source of his courage was not to be found in a sense of immunity. As Roland Bainton has pointed out, the most intrepid revolutionary is the one who has a fear greater than anything his opponents can inflict upon him. Luther, who had trembled before the face of God, had no fear before the face of man. It was at this point, in August 1520, that Luther penned his tract, The Address to the German Nobility, one of several that he wrote during the summer months of that year.


Franz von Sickengen’s castle, where Hutten also established himself during

the ‘warless winter’ of 1519-20.

The poet laureate read to the illiterate knights from Luther’s German works.

(to be continued…)

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Revolutionary Violence, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1349-1452: Part Two   Leave a comment

Part Two: Bohemian Fantasies…


Central-Eastern Europe in the Fifteenth Century

By the end of the fourteenth century, the Ottomans had continued to push well into the Balkans. In 1396 a Hungarian-French crusade sent to relieve the Byzantines had been destroyed at the Battle of Nicopolis: the Empire was only saved by the intervention of the Mongol leader Timur, who destroyed the Ottoman army near Ankara and imprisoned Sultan Bayezid. The Ottoman hold on Thrace was weakened and the Byzantines even recovered some territory, most notably Salonica, which they held until 1423, when, with Imperial troops unable to secure its defence, it was handed over to the Venetians.

The demand for reform in Bohemia initiated by Jan Milic and Matthew of Janov was carried on by other preachers and was further stimulated by the teaching and example of Wyclif, whose works had become known there from 1382 onwards, as a result of the marriage of Anne of Bohemia to Richard II of England. At the turn of the century, it was taken up by Jan Hus, himself an admirer of Wyclif, who voiced it so effectively that the significance of the movement ceased to be purely local and became as wide as Latin Christendom.

Jan Hus (1374-1415) achieved fame as a martyr for the cause of church reform and Czech nationalism. He was ordained a priest in 1401, and spent much of his career teaching at the Charles University in Prague, and preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel, close to the university. Like his reforming predecessors, Hus was a popular preacher whose favourite theme was the corruption and worldliness of the clergy. But an unusual combination of gifts made him at once the Rector of the University, the spiritual leader of the common people and an influential figure at the court. This gave his protests great weight. He also carried these protests further than any of his predecessors, for when (unofficial) Pope John XIII sent emissaries to Prague to preach a ‘crusade’ against his spiritual enemy, the King of Naples,  and to grant indulgences to those who contributed money to the cause, Hus revolted against the papal commands. Like Wyclif before him, he proclaimed that when papal decrees ran counter to the law of Christ as expressed in the Scriptures, the faithful ought not to obey them, and he launched against the sale of indulgences a campaign which roused nation-wide excitement.

In his writing and public preaching, Hus emphasised personal piety and purity of life. He was heavily indebted to the works of Wyclif. He stressed the role of Scripture as an authority in the church and consequently lifted preaching to an important status in church services. In the process, he became a national hero. In his chief work, On the Church, he defined the church as the body of Christ, with Christ as its only head. Although he defended the traditional authority of the clergy, he taught that only God can forgive sin.

Hus believed that neither popes nor cardinals could establish doctrine which was contrary to Scripture, nor should any Christian obey an order from them which was plainly wrong. He condemned the corruptness of the clergy and criticised his people for worshipping images, belief in false miracles and undertaking ‘superstitious pilgrimages’. He criticised the church for withholding the cup of wine from the people during communion and condemned the sale of indulgences. Never an extremist or a rebel, Hus offended simply by refusing blind obedience to his ecclesiastical superiors, but that was enough to cost him his life. Hus was at the centre of lengthy struggles in Prague, and was his case was referred to Rome. Excommunicated in 1412, he was summoned in 1414 to appear before the Ecumenical Council, sitting in Constance in 1415, in order to defend his beliefs. His intention was to persuade the Council by the argument that the Church was truly in need of fundamental reform.

The Council had attracted wide interest, and by 1415 scholars, church dignitaries and various officials had arrived. Even the Greek Orthodox sent representatives. Over the next three years, some forty-five main sessions were held, with scores of lesser committee meetings. Eventually, after a trial in 1415, John XXIII was forced to give up his claim to the papacy. In the same year, Gregory XII resigned, leaving just one pope, the Spanish Benedict XIII. He too was tried and deposed in 1417. No council had achieved so much in healing breaches within the church since the very early general councils. The way was clear to elect one pope who would once again represent all Western Christians. This was done in 1417, and the new pope was Martin V. Besides the Hus case and a few other issues, the Council initiated reforms, but it also prohibited the giving of both bread and wine to all Christians during the Eucharist, a major Hussite demand, and condemned John Wyclif, posthumously, for heresy. His body was disinterred from the holy ground in Lutterworth and burnt in 1427.

It was decreed that further councils should be held and that certain changes should be made in the College of Cardinals, in the bureaucracy of the papacy and in controlling abuses of tithes and indulgences. The real issue, however, was papal power, and here Martin V showed he was a pope of the ‘old school’, seeking to uphold the absolute authority of the pontiff over all councils and colleges. He was only really interested in administrative reform, not in the reform of religious doctrine and ritual.

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Even before the deposition of Richard II, Sigismund was personally acquainted with the House of Lancaster. In 1392, he had met Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, on the way back from his Lithuanian expedition, when Sigismund was only King of Hungary. In the Battle of Nicopolis of 1396, mentioned above, Henry supported Sigismund with ten thousand soldiers. Henry returned to Hungary as King of England in 1412, as a guest at Sigismund’s celebration of his peace with Poland. Then in 1415, as Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund visited Henry V in England to promote the peace between him and the King of France following the Battle of Agincourt. The German sources contain details of his memorable journey and his stay in Canterbury and London, of his splendid entourage and princely reception at court. He sojourned there for four months, spending part of his time studying the government and constitution (including a visit to the English Parliament), with which he was very impressed.

Meanwhile, the Lollards continued preaching even after Henry IV proclaimed his severe law, de heritico comburendo in 1401. Without the student link between Oxford and Prague, Wyclifism would never have reached Bohemia or, indeed, Hungary. At least one of the Oxford Lollards, Peter Payne, visited Prague, before seeking refuge from the wrath of Sigismund in Moldavia, where he taught Moldavian Hungarians who began the first translation of the Gospels into Hungarian in 1466. The translation of the books of the New Testament has an attached calendar, the first of its kind in Hungary. This calendar contains the names of English saints not to be found in any later Hungarian calendar. According to Sándor Fest (1938), these names point to Payne having been responsible for the translation. According to a report sent to Constantinople in 1451, the Oxford and Prague University Professor had played a major role in the development of Hussite-Wyclifism in central-Eastern Europe:

… in the conception of the true faith and religion he has brought many people to our fold, in Moldovlacia, of course, from among the foreigners there; also from among the Saxons and Hungarians, and very many in Bohemia and England.

Fest claims that the ideas propagated by Wyclif brought about an unparalleled intellectual revolution in Hungary as well as in England.


When set against this background, the complicity of Sigismund in the death of Hus is a matter of controversy, even more so since he had granted Hus a safe-conduct to Constance and protested against his subsequent imprisonment. Hus was tried and then condemned to be burned at the stake without any real opportunity to explain his views. The reformer was burnt as a heretic during the Emperor’s absence from the Council. The core of Hus’ ‘heresy’ was his claim that the Papacy was not a divine but a human institution, that Christ, not the pope, was the true head of the Church, and that an unworthy pope should be deposed. Ironically enough, the same Council which condemned Hus had indeed just deposed Pope John XXIII on the grounds of simony, murder, sodomy and fornication.

Contemporary records indicate that, at the Council, Sigismund received the English delegates with demonstrative kindness, but was far less gracious to the French. After the Council he continued to be interested in everything happening in England, an interest which had not only a sentimental but a political foundation, for at one time he was working with the House of Lancaster towards the common end of finding a permanent solution to the Lollard-Hussite ‘problem’. Could it have been political expediency, arising out of the change from Yorkist to Lancastrian monarchs in England, which pushed Sigismund into taking a tougher line with Hus and his followers? The reign of Sigismund was also favourable for Anglo-Hungarian commercial relations. The Hungarian sources contain repeated references to English merchants arriving in Buda, or of merchants shipping silver and hides from Hungary to England.

Source: Wikipaedia

Hus’ heroic death nevertheless aroused the national feelings of the Czech people and turned the unrest in Bohemia into a national reformation. For the first time, and a full century before Luther, a nation challenged the authority of the Church as represented by pope and council. During the years 1415-18, the Czechs established their own Hussite church throughout Bohemia, with the support of the barons and King Wenceslas. In effect, the existing Church hierarchy was largely replaced by a national church which was no longer controlled from Rome but was under the patronage of the secular powers of Bohemia. At the same time, at the urging of a former follower of Hus, Jakoubek of Stríbro, it was decided that henceforth laymen, as well as the clergy, should receive Holy Communion in both kinds, bread and wine.

These were far-reaching changes, but they did not, in themselves, amount to a formal break with the Church of Rome. On the contrary, they were conceived as reforms to which it was hoped to win over the Church as a whole. If the Roman Church, still meeting in Constance, had concurred in this reform, the Czech nobility, the Masters of the University and many of the common people would have been satisfied. But the Council of Constance rejected the Hussite proposal on the Eucharist. In 1419 King Wenceslas, under pressure from Emperor Sigismund (his brother) and Pope Martin V, reversed his policy and abandoned the Hussite cause. Hussite ‘propaganda’ was restricted, and even utraquism, the doctrine of communion in both kinds was regarded with disfavour by the secular authorities. In the part of Prague known as the New City, the common people, inspired by the former monk and ardent Hussite, Jan Zelivsky, became increasingly restive. When, in July 1419, Wenceslas removed all Hussite councillors from the government of the New City, the populace rose up, stormed the town hall and threw the new councillors from the windows. Seven of them were killed in what became known as the First Defenestration of Prague.

This unsuccessful attempt to suppress the Hussite movement greatly strengthened the radical tendencies within it. From the start, it had included people whose aims went far beyond those of the nobility or of the Masters of the University. The great majority of these belonged to the lower social strata, including cloth-workers, tailors, brewers and smiths, together with artisans of many trades. The part played by these people was so striking that Catholic polemicists could even pretend that the whole Hussite movement had, from the very beginning, been financed by the artisan guilds. It would have been truer to say that the general upheaval in Bohemia encouraged social unrest amongst the artisans. This was particularly the case in Prague. The success of the insurrection enormously increased the power of the guilds and the artisans, who expelled large numbers of Catholics, appropriating their houses and property and many of their offices and privileges. The monasteries were also dissolved and much of their wealth passed to the City of Prague, which also benefited the artisans. This made the New City a centre of radical influence.


Although it was the guilds that organised and directed the radical reformation in Prague, the rank-and-file were largely drawn not from the skilled artisans but from the lowest strata of the population – the heterogeneous mass of journeymen, unskilled workers, indentured servants, beggars, prostitutes and criminals. By 1419-20 the great majority of the population of Prague, which was between thirty and forty thousand, were on starvation wages. The radical wing of the Hussite movement was largely recruited from this harassed proletariat. This ‘wing’ began to split off from the more conservative one and to develop along lines of its own. Faced with the new, persecutory policy of King Wenceslas, a number of radical priests began to organise congregations outside the parish system, on various hilltops in southern Bohemia. There they gave communion in both kinds and preached against the abuses of the Church of Rome. These congregations soon turned into permanent settlements where life was lived in conscious imitation of the original Christian communities portrayed in the New Testament.

These communities formed an embryonic society which was wholly outside the feudal order and which attempted to regulate its affairs on the basis of brotherly love instead of force. The most important of these settlements was on a hill near to the River Luznica. The spot was renamed ‘Mount Tábor’ after the dome-shaped mountain in Palestine, 1,800 feet above sea level, where Christ was thought to have been transfigured, and where he met and ‘camped’ with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9: 2-13; Matt. 17; Luke 9: 29; 2 Pet. 1: 16). The name became attached to the radical Hussites themselves and they became known to their contemporaries as ‘Táborites’. They were particularly anti-German, since most of the prosperous merchants in the Czech towns were German and staunch Catholics. Also, whereas most of the moderate Utraquists clung in most respects to traditional Catholic doctrine, the Táborites affirmed the right of every individual, layman or priest, to interpret the scriptures according to their own conscience. Many of them rejected the dogma of purgatory, dismissed prayers and masses for the dead as vain superstitions, saw nothing to venerate in the relics or images of saints and treated many of the rites and rituals of the Church with contempt. They also refused to take oaths, which brought them into conflict with the civil authorities. They insisted that nothing which could not be found in Holy Scripture should be treated as an article of faith.

The Táborites aimed at a national reformation which, unlike the original Hussite one, would involve a complete break with Rome. In October and November 1419, Táborites from all over Bohemia congregated in Prague, where their leaders tried to win over the Hussite magistrates and university masters to their more radical ‘programme’. They were unsuccessful, and soon the Hussites as a whole were confronted with a more ruthless opposition. King Wenceslas had died in August, from shock at the killing of the councillors, and the great Hussite nobles joined their Catholic colleagues to secure the succession for Wenceslas’ brother, the Emperor Sigismund, as well as to deal with the radicals in their own movement. The Prague magistrates threw their weight on the conservative side.  They agreed to preserve the Utraquist communion, but also to suppress the Táborites. From November 1419, for several months thereafter, the radicals were isolated from their national movement and exposed to savage persecution aimed at their extermination. As a result,  apocalyptic and millenarian fantasies took on a new dynamism among them.

A number of former priests, led by Martin Huska, also known as Loquis because of his extraordinary eloquence, began to preach openly the coming of a great consummation, announcing that the time had arrived when all evil must be abolished in preparation for the Millennium. They prophesied that, between 10 and 14 February 1420, every town and village would be destroyed by fire, like Sodom, and that throughout Christendom, the wrath of God would overtake everyone who did not flee to the mountains, the five towns in Bohemia that had become Táborite strongholds. Multitudes of the poor folk sold their belongings and, moving to these towns with their families, threw their money at the feet of the preachers. These people saw themselves as entering the final struggle against Antichrist and his hosts, as a letter and song distributed at the time reveals:

There are five of these cities, which will not enter into agreements with the Antichrist or surrender to him.

Faithful ones, rejoice in God! Give him honour and praise, that he has pleased to preserve us and graciously liberate us from the evil Antichrist and his cunning army…

No longer content to await the destruction of the godless by a miracle, the preachers called upon the faithful to carry out the necessary purification of the earth themselves. One of them, a graduate of Prague University called John Capek, wrote a tract which is said to have been fuller of blood than a pond is of water in which he demonstrated, by quoting the Old Testament, that it was the inescapable duty of the Elect to kill in the name of the Lord. This work was used as a polemical armoury by other preachers to urge their congregations on to massacre. They declared that no pity must be shown towards sinners, for all sinners were enemies of Christ:

Accursed be the man who withholds his sword from shedding the blood of the enemies of Christ. Every believer must wash his hands in that blood… Every priest may lawfully pursue, wound and kill sinners.

The sins which were to be punished by death included, as previously in such massacres, ‘avarice’ and ‘luxury’, but also any and every form of opposition to the men of the Divine Law. These Táborites, therefore, considered all their opponents to be sinners who must be exterminated. By no means all the evidence for this bloodthirstiness being enacted comes from hostile sources. One of the more pacific Táborites lamented the change that had come over so many of his colleagues. Satan, he observed, had seduced them into regarding themselves as angels who must purify Christ’s world of all scandals and who were destined to sit in judgement over the world, on the strength of which they committed many killings and impoverished many people. A Latin tract written by one of the millenarians themselves confirms all this: The just… will now rejoice, seeing vengeance and washing their hands in the blood of sinners.

The most extreme members of the movement went still further in maintaining that anyone who did not help them in liberating the truth and destroying sinners was himself a member of the hosts of Satan and Antichrist and therefore fit only for annihilation. For the hour of vengeance had come, when the imitation of Christ meant no longer an imitation of his mercy but only of his rage, cruelty and vengefulness.  As avenging angels of God and warriors of Christ, the Elect must kill all, without exception, who did not belong to their community.

The millenarian excitement was encouraged by developments in the political situation. In March 1420, the truce between the moderate Hussites and Emperor Sigismund was terminated and a Catholic army, international in composition but predominantly German and Magyar, invaded Bohemia. The Czechs had never accepted Sigismund as their king after the death of his brother, Wenceslas. The country embarked on a de facto Interregnum which was to last until 1436. It also embarked on a War of Independence in which, under a military commander of real genius, Jan Zizka, it fought off the invaders in a series of battles. Zizka was a Táborite, and it was they who bore the brunt of the struggle. At least in the early stages, they never doubted that they were living through the consummation of time, the extermination of all evils beyond which lay the Millennium.

They were convinced that while they were cleansing the earth of all sinners, Christ would descend in glory and great power. Then would come the ‘messianic banquet’, which would be held in the holy mountains, after which Christ would take the place of the unworthy Emperor Sigismund and reign among his saints in the transformed millennial realm. Both the Church and the State would disappear, there would be no law nor coercion, and the egalitarian State of Nature would be recreated.

Prague, now the stronghold of the supporters of the evil Emperor Sigismund, became an object os special detestation to the Táborites. They now called it ‘Babylon’, the birthplace of Antichrist and demonic counterpart of Jerusalem, and regarded it as the embodiment of the sins of ‘Luxury’ and ‘Avarice’, the downfall of which had been foretold in the Book of Revelation as the harbinger of the Second Coming. That might be indefinitely delayed, the traditional social order might remain unchanged, every real chance of an egalitarian revolution might disappear, but still the fantasies lingered on. As late as 1434 a speaker at a Táborite assembly declared that however unfavourable the circumstances might be at present, the moment would soon come when the Elect must arise and exterminate their enemies – the lords in the first place and then any of their own people who were of doubtful loyalty or usefulness. That done, with Bohemia fully in their control, they must proceed at whatever cost in bloodshed to conquer first the neighbouring and then all other territories: For that is what the Romans did, and in that way they came to dominate the whole world.

Early in 1420, communal chests had been set up at certain centres under the control of the Táborite priests, and thousands of peasants and artisans throughout Bohemia and Moravia sold all their belongings and paid the proceeds into these chests. Many of these people joined the Táborite armies to lead, as propertyless nomadic warriors of Christ, a life much like that of the pauperes of the People’s Crusades of previous centuries. Many others settled in the five towns which became Taborite strongholds and formed what were intended to be completely egalitarian communities, held together by brotherly love alone and holding all things in common. The first of these was formed, at the beginning of 1420, at Písek in southern Bohemia, and the second came into being in February 1420, shortly after the Second Coming failed to materialise as predicted. A force of Táborites then captured the town of Ústi on the River Luznika, in the neighbourhood of the hill which, the year before, had been re-named Mount Tábor. The fortress they built on a promontory in the river was also named Tábor. Jan Zizka then abandoned his headquarters at Plzen and moved to Tábor with his army of followers. Tábor and Písek then became the main strongholds of the movement, with Tabor becoming the more millenarian of the two. It began inaugurating the ‘Golden Age’ by outlawing all private property.

Josef Mathauser - Jan Žižka s knězem Václavem Korandou roku 1420 hledí s Vítkova na Prahu.jpg

Above: Jan Žižka with a Hussite priest looking over Prague after the Battle of Vítkov Hill

When the funds in the communal chests became exhausted, however, the radicals declared that they were entitled to take whatever belonged to the enemies of God, at first from the clergy, nobility and rich merchants, but soon from anyone who was not a Táborite. Thenceforth, many of Zizka’s campaigns became pillages, and the more moderate Táborites complained at their synod that many communities never think of earning their own living by the work of their hands but are only willing to live on other people’s property and to undertake unjust campaigns for the sole purpose of robbing. In the spring of 1420, the Táborites enthusiastically proclaimed the abolition of all feudal bonds, dues and services, but by October they were driven by their own economic plight to set about collecting their own dues from the peasants in the territories which they controlled. When they were forced to increase these, the peasants found they were worse off than they had been under their former lords. Again, a synod of the moderate Taborites made the following striking complaint:

Almost all the communities harass the common people of the neighbourhood in quite inhuman fashion, oppress them like tyrants and pagans and extort rent from pitilessly even from the truest believers, and that although some of these people are of the same faith as themselves, are exposed to the same dangers of war along with them and are cruelly ill-treated and robbed by the enemy.

As the fortunes of war swung one way or another, these ‘common people’ found themselves caught between the two marauding armies, at times having to pay dues to the Táborites, and at other times to their old feudal lords. They were also being constantly penalised by both sides for collaborating with the enemy, as the ‘allies of tyrants’ on the one hand, or ‘the friends of heretics’ on the other. When under the control of the Taborites they were treated as landless serfs, being compelled by every means and especially by fire to carry out their orders. Though the Táborites had challenged the feudal order more effectively than any group before them, by the end of the war the Bohemian peasantry was weaker than it had been before and the nobility was stronger and better able to reimpose serfdom.

Above: Escape of King Sigismund from Kutná Hora

Nevertheless, from March 1420 onwards the Táborites were involved in the national Hussite war against the invading German and Hungarian armies, helping the ‘mainstream’ Utraquist Hussites of Prague to defend the City for several months. Zizka himself was neither a millenarian nor an egalitarian and, coming from the ranks of the lower nobility, he saw to it that his commanding officers were all men who came from the same background. When the Táborite priests returned to Tábor in the autumn, they were more concerned to elect a ‘bishop’ to administer the community chest than with ‘the Golden Age’ and the Millennium. Small groups of social revolutionaries continued to carry out their bloody and often bizarre practices in the countryside throughout the following year, keeping Zizka’s army distracted from their true cause, but by 1422 social revolution had become a secondary priority for the Taborite movement as a whole.

A counter-revolution put an end to the artisans’ ascendancy in Prague and thereafter effective power lay increasingly with the patricians and the wider nobility. But beyond the frontiers of the Czech lands, the teaching and example of the Bohemian revolutionaries continued to work upon the imaginations of the discontented poor, and everywhere the rich and privileged, clerics and laymen alike, were obsessed by the fear that the spread of Taborite or Hussite influence would result in a revolution which would overthrow the whole social order.

It was in Germany that the Táborites had most chance to exert influence, for in 1430 their armies penetrated as far as Leipzig, Bamberg and Nuremberg. When at Mainz, Bremen, Constance, Weimar and Stettin the guilds rose up against the patricians, the disorders were blamed on the Táborites. in 1431 the patricians of Ulm called upon the towns allied with them to join together in a new crusade against Hussite Bohemia. They pointed out that there were revolutionary elements in Germany which had much in common with the Táborites. It would be all to easy for the rebellion of the poor to spread from Bohemia into Germany. If it did, it would be the patricians in the towns who would have the most to lose. The General Council of Basle, meeting the same year, also expressed its concern about the possibility of the common people of Germany entering into an alliance with the Táborites and seizing Church property. These fears may have been exaggerated and premature, but the chronicles of the next hundred years were to show that they were not without foundation.

Above. The Battle of Lipany

In 1434 the Taborite army was defeated and almost annihilated in the Battle of Lipany, not by an army of German and Hungarian Catholics, but one of Bohemian Utraquist Hussites. From then onwards the strength of the Táborite movement rapidly declined. The town of Tábor itself was eventually taken by George of Poděbrady in 1452, who became King of Bohemia. Utraquist religious worship was established there. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the town continued to include most of the strongest opponents of Rome in Bohemia. The Bohemian Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), whose intellectual originator was Petr Chelčický, but whose actual founders were Brother Gregory, a nephew of Archbishop Rokycany, and Michael, curate of Žamberk, to a certain extent continued the Táborite traditions into the next generations.

Johan amos comenius 1592-1671.jpg

Above: John Amos Comenius

(Czech: Jan Amos Komenský; 28 March 1592 – 15 November 1670)

The Hussites agreed to submit to the authority of the King of Bohemia and the Catholic Church and were allowed to practice their somewhat variant Utraquist rite. J. A. Komenský (Comenius), a member of the Moravian Brethren, claimed for the members of his church that they were the genuine inheritors of the doctrines of Hus. After the beginning of the German Reformation, many Utraquists adapted to a large extent to the doctrines of Martin Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. The Hussite reformers were closely associated with the resistance of the Czechs to German Protestant domination in the sixteenth century, but from the end of that century, the inheritors of the Hussite tradition in Bohemia were included in the more general name of “Protestants” borne by the adherents of the Reformation. The Utraquist creed, frequently varying in its details, continued to be that of the established church of Bohemia until all non-Catholic religious services were prohibited shortly after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. The Moravian Brethren went on to have a major influence on the development of Wesleyan Methodism in England and Wales in the eighteenth century.

Sigismund was finally crowned Emperor in Rome on 31 May 1433, and after obtaining his demands from the Pope returned to Bohemia, where he was recognized as king in 1436, though his power was little more than nominal. Shortly after he was crowned, Pope Eugenius began attempts to create a new anti-Ottoman alliance, but Sigismund died the following year, hated by the Czech people as a whole, if not by the Germans and Hungarians he had also ruled after.

002 (3)

In the Reformation of Sigismund, written by an anonymous contemporary in 1439 (see above), the Emperor is made to make a posthumous pronouncement about how God  bade him prepare the way for a priest-king who was to be none other than Frederick of Latnaw, the possible author of the book, who, as Emperor Frederick, would reveal himself as a monarch of unparalleled might and majesty. Any moment now Frederick’s standard and that of the Empire would be set up, with the Cross between them; and then every prince and lord and every city would have to declare for Frederick, on pain of forfeiting property and freedom. ‘Sigismund’ goes on to describe how he sought for this Frederick of Latnaw until he found him at the Council of Basle (1431), in a priest whose poverty was equal to that of Christ. He had given him a robe and entrusted him with the government of all Christendom. For this Frederick, he claims, will reign over a dominion which will reach from sea to sea and none will be able to withstand him. He will tread all trouble and wrong-doing underfoot, will destroy the wicked and consume them by fire. By ‘the wicked’ are meant those corrupted by money, simoniac priests and avaricious merchants. Under his rule, the common people will rejoice to find justice established and all their desires of soul and body satisfied.


Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium. St Alban’s: Granada

Irene Richards and J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap

András Bereznay et. al. (1998), The Times Atlas of European History. London: Times Books (Harper Collins).

Sándor Fest (2000), Skóciai Szent Margittól A Walesi Bárdokig (Anglo-Hungarian Historical and Literary Contacts). Budapest: Universitas Könyvkiadó.

John H. Y. Briggs, Robert D. Linder, David F. Wright (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.


Posted January 17, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Apocalypse, Assimilation, Austria-Hungary, Balkan Crises, British history, Bulgaria, Christian Faith, Church, Conquest, Empire, Europe, Galilee, Germany, Gospel of Luke, Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Matthew, Henry V, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Jews, Messiah, Migration, Monarchy, Mysticism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, New Testament, Old Testament, Ottoman Empire, Palestine, Papacy, Reformation, Serbia, Simon Peter, theology, Turkey, Wales, Warfare

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