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

The Long & Winding Road to Recovery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contrasting Images of the Thirties:

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

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

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

South Wales –  A Region in Need of a Plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolutionary Left & The Radical Right:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Battle of Cable Street’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Downing Street Declaration & the Public Order Act:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Popular Front – Parliamentary Politics & Protest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parliamentary Opposition to Appeasement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter of Discontent – Sit-in at the Ritz:

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Restoration & Right-wing Ascendancy, 1920-1940:

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

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

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

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

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

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“No rebellion, but neither submission”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Territorial changes affecting Hungary, 1938-41

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

The Death Bed of Democracy, 1941-1956.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

 

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

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