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

The Collapse of the Reich:

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

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Above: Berlin, 1945

Crossing the Rhine:

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

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

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

Poland & The Red Army Marshals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retreat from the Oder & Roosevelt’s departure:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Exodus from the Baltic & the Berne talks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning for Nuremberg:

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Assault on Berlin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Capture & Capitulation of the Capital:

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

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

Despair, Suicide & Resistance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Army’s ‘Retribution’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stalin with Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February.

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

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

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

Three Suicides, Two Surrenders & a Celebration:

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

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

Speaking through an interpreter, Krebs said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Immediate Aftermath & Routes to Potsdam:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix:

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

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Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Britain was at War:

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

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

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

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

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

Appendices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Documents:

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

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

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

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

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

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

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

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

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

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1   German invasion, blitzkrieg, of Poland began.

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Summary of Events from June to September:

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

The Final Steps to European War:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Spheres of Influence’:

Ribbentrop began the negotiations with the following statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blitzkrieg & the Partition of Poland:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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The Halt in the Holocaust in Hungary & The Second Stage of the ‘Shoah’, August – November 1944: Part I.   Leave a comment

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The Eden Memorandum on Migration to Palestine:

The National Archives in London has recently released a secret document from 8 August 1944, a Memorandum prepared for the War Cabinet by Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, of an “offer” from Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, that, provided the United Kingdom and the United States governments could find sufficient accommodation, the Hungarian government would be prepared to allow all Jewish children under ten years of age, with visas for other countries, and all adults and children with Palestine immigration certificates, to leave Hungary. Horthy also announced that there would be no further transportations of Jews to Poland, i.e. to Auschwitz. This document, and the attached correspondence between Washington and Whitehall, is significant in that it clarifies the controversy about if, when and how Horthy acted to bring the deportations to an end, and to enable the remaining Jews (mainly trapped in Budapest, many of them refugees from other countries) to seek asylum elsewhere. The matter was discussed at the War Cabinet Committee on Refugees meeting on 4 June, although Eden himself was not present. The Government faced a dilemma, since refusing to accept this offer would result in a hostile public reaction both in the United States and Britain, but accepting it would be ‘risking civil war in Palestine owing to the inroad of Jews from Hungary into the Levant.’  Despite the obvious urgency of the situation, the Cabinet reached a ‘no-decision’. The proposal of the International Red Cross for the almost immediate removal of 41,000 Jews from Hungary to Romania alarmed the meeting, which was generally against joining the US in accepting. The Secretary of State for the Colonies argued that the British Empire would be signing a blank cheque which we could not honour.

Although both Foreign Office and Home Office secretaries argued that the offer should be accepted in concert with the USA, they felt that in doing so the US Government must accept that the British authorities should not be forced to deliver the impossible in terms of accommodating the refugees, and it was eventually agreed to extend the transit camp originally established for Yugoslav refugees, especially to contain a potential sudden influx of immigrants to Palestine. There had even been suspicions expressed within the Cabinet that Hitler himself had inspired Horthy’s offer in order to create fundamental difficulties for the Allies in the Near East by allowing an exodus of Jews. Certainly, at this point, we know that the Regency in Budapest was incapable of acting independently from the occupying Nazi forces and Hitler’s all-powerful agent in the capital, Veesenmayer. It was not until the end of the month that the Romanians defected from the Axis camp and it became possible for a more independent Hungarian government to be formed again, so the Allies were rightly cautious about any overtures from Budapest at this stage.

Colonel Koszorús’ Unparalleled Action:

However, not to accept the offer would give the Nazis and the pro-Nazi Hungarian government a propaganda coup, and Eden agreed that the acceptance of the offer should be widely publicised and that the Dominion governments should be asked to help in receiving some of the refugees. He also suggested that it might be necessary to establish a transit camp in Syria in order to prevent the situation in Palestine from becoming ‘acute’. In a flurry of telegrams, the US Government agreed to wait before accepting the offer until after the full British War Cabinet on 8th, although before writing his Cabinet memorandum, Eden had already sent a third telegram to Washington signalling the British Government’s acceptance, subject to the detailed terms of transport and accommodation being agreed by the two governments. What effect this agreement had in Hungary we do not yet know, neither can we say that the deportations had been ended by this time, whatever the Regent’s intentions might have been. Horthy had originally ordered their suspension on 6 July, but a further 45,000 Jews from Transdanubia and the County of Pest had continued to be deported after that date. The most effective action to shield the Jews of Budapest had been taken on the initiative of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús in July, having important consequences for the survival of the Regency into the later summer and autumn:

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Holocaust, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust himself and a liberal Democrat who served as Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recognised Colonel Ferenc Koszorús:

‘Colonel Koszorús’ unparalleled action (in July 1944) was the only case in which Axis powers used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by three and a half months. This hiatus allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest, thus sparing them from certain execution. It also permitted the famous Raoul Wallenberg , who arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission…’

(Hon. Tom Lantos, ‘Ferenc Koszurús: A Hero of the Hungarian Holocaust’, Congressional Record, 26 May 1994.)

We know that the Sztójay Government had rescheduled the deportation of the Budapest Jews for 27 August, but the Romanians switched sides on 23rd, and it was Himmler who cancelled any further deportations on 27th.

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Raids on the Roma & Horthy’s ‘Hiatus’:

Throughout August and September, the horrors of ‘all-out’ warfare had continued within Hungary and its occupied territories, with massacres by government troops and continued forced marches. These were also experienced increasingly by the Roma communities (pictured above). In August and September, the remaining Roma were subjected to raids on their villages, pressing the men into forced labour companies. The first massacre of gipsies took place on 5 October in Doboz, Békés County, where twenty Roma, including women and children, were killed by hand grenades and machine-guns of the Hungarian first armoured division’s military police, acting together with the local gendarmes. Later that month, the Roma were ordered not to leave their permanent residences. At the same time, there were some signs of hopes for peace that late summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann’s SS, and this led to a ‘hiatus’ in the anti-Jewish campaign. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, ‘Second Class’.

In spite of the change to a more ‘neutral’ government under General Lakatos, Hungarian troops occupied parts of Southern Transylvania, Romania, and massacred hundreds of Jews, starting on 4 September. Soviet units then reached the borders established by Trianon later that month and then moved across these into Szeged, where Horthy had begun his journey to power twenty-five years earlier. His failure as an Axis ally was now complete as a gigantic tank battle took place around Debrecen in early October. By mid-October, the Soviet Red Army entered the outskirts of Pest and Horthy, finally, tried desperately to agree on an armistice. Throughout the short period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours had abounded in Budapest that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho cabled a draft armistice agreement from Moscow requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. Horthy’s hesitation over this gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.

On Sunday morning, 15 October, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews.  The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…

…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..

But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in Buda Castle and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:

The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.

Rudolph (Rézső) Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944, a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner described as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded. By mid-October, the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signalling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its Halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours and in the Columbus Street camp.

Victims, Survivors and Heroes:

childhood-memories 

Tom Leimdorfer, pictured here as a young child during the war, has narrated the effect of the events of 15 October on his family’s struggle to survive in Budapest, and especially in terms of their decision to go into hiding:

By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives.

Dr. Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.

My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where ‘Feri bácsi’ and ‘Manci néni’ (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.

 

After the Arrow Cross coup d’état on 15 October, tens of thousands of Jews of Budapest were sent on foot to the Austrian border in death marches, and most of the remaining forced labourers under Hungarian Army command were deported to Bergen-Belsen. One of these forced labourers was the poet, Miklós Radnóti.

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On the same day the War Cabinet met in London, 8 August to discuss the proposed evacuation of Jewish children from Budapest, Miklós Radnóti wrote the following from his work camp in the mountains above Zagubica in Yugoslavia:

ROOT 

Root, now, gushes with its power, 

rain to drink and earth to grow,

and its dream is white as snow.

Earthed, it heaves above the earthly,

crafty in its clamberings,

arm clamped like a cable’s strings.

On its wrists pale worms are sleeping,

and its ankles worms caress;

world is but  wormeatenness.

Root, though, for the world cares nothing,

thrives and labours there below,

labours for the leafthick bough;

marvels at the bough it nurses,

liquors succulent and sweet,

feeds celestially sweet.

Root is what I am, rootpoet,

here at home among the worms,

finding here the poem’s terms.

I the root was once the flower,

under these dim tons my bower,

comes the shearing of the thread,

deathsaw wailing overhead.

Radnóti’s words continued to be prophetic. The death saw continued to ‘wail overhead’ for many caught up in the Hungarian holocaust. Miklós Radnóti himself was one of these, and one of Hungary’s greatest poets of the twentieth century. Born in Budapest in 1909, from its very beginning, Radnóti’s life was overshadowed by tragedy. At his birth, both his mother and twin brother died. The ‘Numerus Clausus Act’ of September 1920, the first anti-Semitic law in Europe, required that the number of Jews in Hungarian universities be reduced to six per cent. Barred from the University of Budapest, Radnóti enrolled at Szeged University, where he read French and Hungarian literature and was awarded a PhD in 1934. In response to the country’s shift to the right, there were a number of groups arising on the centre-left, liberal, populist and social democratic. Continuing in the liberal tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century Hungarian poets, Radnóti was among the young people in favour of social change. He joined the Art Forum of Szeged Youth, a populist movement addressing the plight of Hungarian peasants, supporting agrarian reform. Drawing on Hungarian folklore, they identified with the national poet Sándor Petőfi and musicians like Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.  Inspired by the left-wing idealism common among writers and artists of the time, both inside Hungary and from outside, Radnóti cherished the values he developed in this group for the rest of his life. He also insisted on his identity as a Catholic and a Hungarian poet for the rest of his life, though his country branded him as a Jew. Once identified as such, regardless of his own detentions, he was effectively sentenced to death.

Despite his darkest premonitions, Radnóti’s work also continued to flourish, especially after his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Fanni Gyarmati, who had been the central focus of his love poems since the late twenties. By the late thirties, he was widely recognised in literary circles. However, within three years, from 1938-41, three sequences of anti-Jewish laws were introduced. The first two defined who was Jewish and regulated the percentage of Jewish participation in various economic activities. The third created a forced labour system that became responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, including that of Radnóti himself. Following the Nazi blitzkrieg on Poland, he anticipated the full-scale destruction of Hungary, and became sick in the stomach, ridden by insomnia and near to collapse. Nevertheless, he recovered sufficiently to produce work of great innovation in the lyrical tradition, combining the classical forms of the ancients with modern sensibilities. In 1938 he published a collection of poems, Steep Road, and in 1940, three more collections, including a volume of prose writing, a selection of translations and his own Selected Poetry. Two more volumes followed in his lifetime.

He was caught up in the whirlwind of the Hungarian Holocaust which followed the Nazi takeover of the country in March 1944. He suffered unspeakable deprivation and died a horrifying, anonymous death. Taken by a freight train from Hungary to Yugoslavia in May 1944, he was shot and buried in a mass grave with twenty-one other forced labourers, on an unknown date between the sixth and tenth of November. He left behind poems of the utmost beauty and rarity that both express and illuminate Hungarian culture. Many of them convey moods and perceptions untainted by the horrors, while others offer first-hand accounts of the wholesale murder. Taken as a whole, they reveal the wide range of Radnóti’s imagination and the obligation he felt to give testimony to an existence engulfed by catastrophe. As well as being masterworks in the annals of the poetry of the last century, they are also documents of destruction. Through them, Radnóti subverted the horror of the Holocaust, in helping us to understand it.

Much of what he started, however, he was unable to finish, as from 1940 he was called up three times into slave labour units. He was worked to exhaustion in coalfields, sugar plants and ammunition factories during his first two call-ups and in his last, he was taken to the copper mines in Bor, Yugoslavia. However, under pressure from Soviet and Partisan forces, the German Army was forced to evacuate the Balkans. Radnóti’s squad was force-marched back to Hungary, to be transferred from there to slave-labour camps in Germany. Cold weather, exhaustion, hunger, savage beatings and killings meant that of marching column which contained 3,600 men on leaving Bor, only eight hundred crossed the Hungarian border. Marching on through Western Hungary in November, Radnóti began to lose his strength. His feet were covered with open blisters, such that he could no longer walk. It was probably on 8 November that the squad reached a brickyard in a town near Győr, where they spent the night. Next day three NCOs of the Hungarian Armed Forces separated Radnóti and twenty-one others from the column. Crowding them onto two borrowed carts, they took them first to a hospital, then to a school housing refugees. Neither had room for them, so the soldiers took them to the dam near Abda, where they were ordered to dig a ditch. The guards then shot them one by one into the ditch.

When his body was exhumed a year and a half later, his last poems, stained by dirt and blood, were found in the pocket of his raincoat. Within a few years of the end of the war, his poems, including these resurrected ones, became well-known to Hungarians, exalting and moving millions of them in the continuing gloom which followed. Radnóti’s place among the Hungarian masters was confirmed. Until now, they have not been so well-known outside Hungary, but Ozsváth and Turner’s recent volume seeks to call the attention of the English-speaking world to them, giving them the means to resound… and communicate the vital, immediate sense which characterizes the original. Radnóti’s last volume of poetry, Foamy Sky, was published posthumously in 1946, a volume which did not then contain the last five poems. Only after his body was exhumed were these five poems found, inscribed in the small camp notebook (pages of which are shown below) he had obtained in Bor. Two years later, the entire and complete volume was re-published. Since then it has been re-published many times in Hungary, but never in English, until now. Ozsváth concludes:

…the unforgettable formal music of his poems not only preserves his most personal perceptions but also echoes the lives and culture of all those who were murdered in the Holocaust.  And while they give account of the darkest hours of history, they also demonstrate the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over death.

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013The Swiss & Swedish Missions:

Meanwhile, the remaining Jewish population of Budapest were living at the same subsistence level as the general population, despite the claims of the political far right that they were having a cushy time. As a result of the persistent removals of rights, men away on compulsory forced labour, and the deaths of many in the process, mass impoverishment and demoralisation were more and more in evidence. Applications to officialdom from widows who had lost husbands went unanswered. The Jews’ yellow ration cards bought less food of inferior quality in the shops.

The Swedish and Swiss embassies and their diplomats Wallenberg, Anger and Lutz did all they could to ameliorate these conditions and to protect the Jews against recurrent threats of deportation, providing safe houses, exemptions from wearing yellow stars and from forced labour in the army. Wallenberg was appaled at the helplessness of the Jews crammed into the starred houses. Those in need were quickly given financial assistance. A wide range of Jews doing forced labour, who were reduced to rags, were helped and enabled to obtain shoes and clothing. A separate purchasing section of the Swedish Embassy was set up for this purpose.

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Wallenberg had arrived in Budapest on 9 July with a brief as embassy secretary of assessing and reporting on conditions in Hungary with a view to the organisation of further ‘humanitarian’ action. The director of the American War Refugee Bureau (WRB) and of OSS, Iver C Olsen, had chosen him for the mission in Hungary. He also had the backing of the US ambassador in Stockholm and the Swedish Foreign Ministry. He was charged with a number of tasks: in addition to reporting on the situation in the country, he was to build up and run a Swedish relief organisation, and to support persecuted Jews and registered persons in Budapest with a view to their rescue. He was to collaborate closely with the International Red Cross, thereby to organise escape routes in various directions. In this matter, from mid-July, he called on the services of Carl Lutz at the Swiss Consulate, from whom he learnt of the talks between the officials of the ‘Reich’ and the Hungarian authorities, and of the purpose and text of the Swiss protective documents.

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Carl Lutz, Switzerland’s Vice-Consul, worked from the US Legation, declaring seventy-two buildings in Budapest as annexes of the Swiss Legation, thereby saving over sixty thousand Jews. On 24 July, Lutz moved the Emigration Section to a building in the old business quarter of Pest. It was granted extra-territorial status, and the series of numbered emigration documents prepared in its offices was called a ‘collective passport’. This originally contained the names of 7,800 ’emigrating’ Hungarian Jews. From October, Swiss protective letters (Schutzbrief) in Hungarian and German were also issued. With the assistance of Zionist members of the opposition, these were steadily circulated to the nominated Jewish families, who also received certificates like the one pictured below which they could display on doors and in windows to declare their protection by the Swiss Consulate. When Szálasi came to power, these were mostly of symbolic value. Lutz’s wife, Gertrud Frankhauser was also devoted to this humanitarian work, and both of them were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem later in their lives.

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Above: Daisy Lászlo, as named on her letter of protection
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(to be continued)

Annihilation & Liberation in Warsaw & Paris: August – October 1944 (I).   Leave a comment

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above: a street in Warsaw. The Germans destroyed the city in the summer and autumn of 1944.

Introduction – An Appalling Martyrdom:

The approach of the Red Army to Warsaw at the end of July had encouraged the anti-Communist ‘Armia Krajowa’, the Polish Home Army, to attempt an uprising at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 August 1944, under their Generals Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski and Antoni Chrusciel. As a consequence of this decision, for more than the full two months of August and September 1944, Warsaw suffered an appalling martyrdom as the SS moved in to destroy the Polish insurgents with every kind of inhumane warfare. The result was a desperate and tragic struggle by the Warsaw Poles, just as the Warsaw Ghetto Rising of April 1943 had been for the Polish Jews. The Uprising was crushed with maximum ferocity by the SS in just sixty-three days, which was nonetheless a remarkable length of time for resistance when it is considered that only fourteen per cent of the Home Army were even armed when it began, with only 108 machine guns, 844 sub-machine guns and 1,386 rifles. Warsaw became a city reduced to ruins, where even the ruins were blasted by German guns and aircraft: the dead lay entombed in the ruins and the wounded lay untended on roads or suffered their last agonies in gloomy cellars. Those fighting from the sewers were finished off by gas grenades flung on them by German troops.

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The Poles, understandably, had wanted to wrest control of their capital and the sovereignty of their country, away from the Germans before the arrival of the Russians, who they correctly assumed to have no more desire for genuine Polish independence than the Nazis. So, while the Uprising was aimed militarily against the Germans, it was also aimed politically at the Soviets, something that Stalin understood only too well. Appeals for Soviet aid fell on deaf ears, giving the impression at first of glacial indifference and latterly of unbending hostility. The Soviet policy seemed to soften somewhat in mid-September, but by that time the underground army had been throttled. Meanwhile, of lesser note but no less tragic, the rising in Slovakia petered out, though on this occasion Soviet troops fought as best they could to bring direct military aid to the insurgents: the gamble did not come off, however, as Koniev failed to break through to rebel-held territory and Soviet units were left to fight gruelling battles in the Carpathians until late November 1944.

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Laurence Rees’ recent book Behind Closed Doors (2008), drawing on material only available since the opening of the Kremlin archives, provides a detailed account of the Moscow meeting between Prime Minister Mikolajczyk and other representatives of the Polish government in exile in London on the one side and Stalin and Molotov on the other. Given the entrenched positions of each of the parties and the massive disparity in real power, the meeting held on 3rd August was destined to be a failure. What was most remarkable, however, was the manner in which Mikolajczyk misjudged the situation. He knew that, as he talked with Stalin in the Kremlin, the fate of millions in Warsaw rested on the result. But despite the urgency of the situation there, the Uprising was the fourth point on his agenda, following a series of points referring back to the Soviet invasion of 1941. Even then, it was dealt with within the context of the exiled Poles’ desire to carry out elections in Poland based on universal suffrage. However, at the end of this all this verbiage, Mikolajczyk finally came directly to the most pressing point: I now have to ask you to order help to be given to our units fighting in Warsaw.  Stalin replied that he would ‘give the necessary orders’, by which he meant that he alone would decide what was required, and he then remarked that he had noticed the absence in Mikolajczyk’s remarks of any reference to the Lublin Poles, the Committee of National Liberation, with whom the Soviets had already concluded an agreement. Mikolajczyk gave a lengthy and emotional response to this, including the plea that:

The four main Polish political parties which are represented in this government (the London Poles) and have for five years carried on the struggle against Germany should have a say in the matter.

Stalin dismissed this view, saying that he had agreed to meet the London Poles, at Churchill’s request, in order to discuss a ‘union’ with the Lublin Poles. Mikolajczyk then made the extraordinary request that he be allowed ‘to go to Warsaw’. Stalin had to remind him that ‘the Germans are there’. The two men then reiterated their respective positions. Stalin wanted the London Poles to deal with the Lublin Poles, and Mikolajczyk restated that, though he would co-operate with the Lublin Poles, they represented a very small section of Polish opinion. While the two ‘sides’ may have been talking to each other, there was certainly no meeting of minds. Stalin spoke increasingly more directly, openly revealing his scorn for the Polish Home Army:

What is an army without artillery, tanks and an air force? They are often short of rifles. In modern warfare such an army is of little use. They are small partisan units, not a regular army. I was told that the Polish government had ordered these units to drive the Germans out of Warsaw. I wonder how they could possibly do this – their forces are not up to that task. As a matter of fact these people do not fight against the Germans, but only hide in woods, being unable to do anything else.

He added, ominously, that ‘the Poles quarrel among themselves’ and that this was something that, in the future, the Soviets would not allow to continue. Of course, there was no real comparison to be made between the representatives of the Polish government in exile and the group that the Soviets had set up in Lublin. But Stalin became so intransigent on the question of the recognition of the Lublin Poles that the minute-taker felt compelled to write: There is a general feeling that the discussion has become futile… The meeting ended just before midnight. Mikolajczyk was partly to blame for his own humiliation at Stalin’s hands, simply because instead of focusing the agenda on the one practical measure that needed at that moment, support for the Warsaw Uprising, he tried to pretend that he was dealing with an equal and to discuss matters which the Soviet leadership did not want to discuss. In sharp contrast to Stalin’s reticence to help the Poles, Churchill reacted quickly to the plight of Warsaw’s inhabitants. Their fight in the streets and parks of the city was precisely the sort of romantic endeavour that appealed to him. On 4th August, the day after Stalin’s meeting with the Polish delegation in Moscow, Churchill sent a cable to the Soviet leader which read:

At the urgent request of the Polish underground army, we are dropping, subject to the weather, about sixty tons of equipment and ammunition into the south-western corner of the city where, it is said, a Polish revolt against the Germans is in fierce struggle. They also say that they appeal for Russian aid, which seems very near. They are being attacked by one and a half German divisions.  This may be of help to your operations. 

Heroes and Villains:

Tadeusz Roman was one of the Polish RAF pilots who tried to help the insurgents in Warsaw. Twenty-five years old, he had served time in a Soviet prison after being caught trying to flee from eastern Poland. After the armistice of 1941, he had made his way west and joined RAF Bomber Command. Now based at Brindisi in southern Italy as part of the Polish Flight, it was not just a matter of honour to help the insurrection. His brother was in the underground army, and Tadeusz thought, mistakenly as it happened, that he was in Warsaw, but, in any case, all the Polish pilots volunteered to take part in the long flight, one of the most dangerous of the war, taking between ten and eleven hours. Starting on 4th August, flights left both Bari and Brindisi, with the airmen of the Polish Flight initially dominating the operation. Between then and the end of September more than two hundred flights were made, dropping a total of more than a hundred tons of supplies. Around eighty Polish airmen lost their lives in the operation, together with more than a hundred other Allied flyers, many of whom were South African. The dangers confronting the bombers were not just from the air defences around Warsaw but from the lengthy and tortuous route over German-occupied territory on the way to the Polish capital and back. Tadeusz’s own luck ran out on 28 August, just after he and his comrades had dropped their supplies over Warsaw. Flying low, at two thousand feet, anti-aircraft fire smashed into one of their engines. Over Krakow, they were hit again, but they managed to coax the plane back to Italy, where they crash-landed on the airport’s perimeter. The other three planes that accompanied him on that night’s mission never returned.

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Meanwhile, Mikolajczyk had left Moscow and returned to London. At his last meeting with Stalin, in the Kremlin on the evening of 9 August, he told the Soviet leader that his talks with the Lublin Poles had convinced him that they would eventually reach an agreement. But when he asked Stalin again for ‘immediate assistance’ for Warsaw, he was met with obfuscation: It would be different if our armies were approaching Warsaw, Stalin told him, but unfortunately, this is not the case. He went on to explain that a vigorous counter-attack by the Germans had forced the Red Army to delay their move on the Polish capital. He was sorry for your men who started the battle in Warsaw prematurely. The discussion then moved on to examine the practicalities of an airdrop, about which Stalin was sceptical, but he nevertheless again promised to help the Home Army in Warsaw. However, towards the end of the meeting, when the Polish PM asked if Stalin would tell us something to comfort the Polish hearts at this difficult time, Stalin replied that Mikolajczyk that he was attaching too much importance to words: One should distrust words. Deeds are more important than words. Just four days later the TASS news agency announced that, since the London Poles had not notified the Soviets in advance about the uprising, all responsibility for what was happening in the city lay with them. On the night of 15 August, the American Ambassador had a meeting at the Kremlin with Soviet Foreign Ministry officials, after which he sent a cable back to the USA, reporting:

The Soviet Government’s refusal (to help the uprising) is not based on operational difficulties, nor on a denial of the conflict, but on ruthless political calculations.

Clearly, as far as ‘deeds’ were concerned, Stalin failed the Poles in Warsaw. But it is still possible that when he had met Mikolajczyk on 9 August, he had not definitely made up his mind. He had, as yet, given no reply to the Western Allies about his position on the uprising. One possible interpretation is that between the meeting and the TASS statement on the 13th, he changed his mind. On 9th he was inclined to help, but by 13th he had decided that he wouldn’t. Although he had already demonstrated that his determination to disband the Home Army, in these days he knew he faced battles ahead with the Western Allies over the composition of any future Polish administration. He had no reason to expect at this point that the Allies would eventually go along with his wishes and recognize a modified version of his puppet government, and may have calculated in early August that, if he was to be successful in getting the London Poles to agree to be subsumed by the Lublin Poles, he would need to offer some kind of assistance to the Warsaw Uprising. Laurence Rees has concluded that Stalin was always inclined to act as he did and refuse to help the Poles in Warsaw, a refusal which fitted a pattern of behaviour in which the Soviet leader had demonstrated time and again his distrust of the Poles and his desire to see the Home Army ‘neutralised’.

In any event, by 13 August, Stalin had made up his mind and, during the rest of August, the crucial period of the rising, the Soviets gave no assistance, not even with dropping air supplies. Although it is arguable whether the Red Army would have reached Warsaw in August, they faced a counter-attack from the Germans on the 2nd on the front line east of the city, they could have made the air bridge more successful if they had wanted to. In fact, a statement from the Soviet Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to the US’ Moscow Ambassador on 18 August made their policy quite clear:

The Soviet government cannot, of course, object to British or American aircraft dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, since this is an American and British affair. But they decidedly object to British or American aircraft, after dropping arms in the region of Warsaw, landing on Soviet Territory, since the Soviet Government do not wish to associate themselves either directly or indirectly with the adventure in Warsaw. 

Finally, on 22nd, Stalin himself reiterated this message in the clearest, most strident and insulting terms possible. He described the Home Army as a ‘bunch of criminals’, and stated that the Soviets would refuse to help the Western Allies with the airlift. Churchill tried to enlist Roosevelt’s support in sending a combative reply, only to be told by the American President on 26 August that he did not consider that it would prove advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to UJ (‘Uncle Joe’ or Stalin). Hugh Lunghi, a member of the British military mission to Moscow, went with the chief of staff of the mission to the Soviet Ministry of Defence to try to get the Soviets to help with the air supplies:

I must have gone there with him almost daily for the first two weeks, and afterwards it became sort of hopeless. We realised they were not going to allow either us or the Americans to land on Soviet territory. And this seemed to us to be the most terrible betrayal, not only of the Poles, but of the Allies. And again, another example of Stalin cutting off his nose to spite his own face, because it meant the Germans would put down this uprising more easily and then the remaining Germans would be available to oppose the Soviet Army. So it seemed quite crazy to us, but also terrible. We were fuming. We were absolutely furious in the military mission.

In reality, however, Stalin had calculated that if he stood back and did nothing, the Home Army would almost certainly be annihilated. And that was what was then happening inside Warsaw. During August, German SS soldiers, supported by various collaborators – including Cossacks from the 15th Cossack Cavalry Corps – conducted a brutal house to house war in the Polish capital. The most notorious SS unit in Warsaw was led by Oskar Dirlewanger. Although he himself had gained a PhD in political science in the 1920s, he presided over a gang of ill-disciplined and bloodthirsty soldiers, most of whom were convicted criminals released from captivity. They were already notorious for their mistreatment of civilians in the occupied Soviet Union. Matthias Schenk, an eighteen-year-old Belgian conscripted into the German Army, served as a demolition engineer in Warsaw alongside Dirlewanger’s Sturmbrigade. In 2008, he was still haunted by what he saw:

Once we went towards a house (which served as a school) with 350 children. We went upstairs and the children came down – children of nine to thirteen years old. They held up their hands … “Nicht Partisan!” … and they stood on the steps. And the SS started to shoot. And then the commander said: “No ammunition – use the butt of the gun!” And the blood spilled down the stairs.

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This was by no means an isolated crime, for the Axis units in the city committed a whole series of atrocities. Many of those witnessed by Matthias Schenk seem purely sadistic, like the point-blank shooting of a little girl and the blowing-up of a thirteen-year-old disabled boy by placing hand grenades in his pocket. Every day in Warsaw, women and children were slaughtered by the occupiers out of their warped sense of ‘fun’. When a hospital held by the Home Army was stormed by the Dirlewanger brigade, Schenk saw, in the aftermath, Polish nurses being sexually assaulted by the SS:

They tore the clothes off these women and jumped on top of them, held them down by means of force … then they were raped … Then Dirlewanger drove them through the (German) crowd, which cajoled and applauded them to the gallows.

These appalling actions were part of a systematic Nazi plan to crush the uprising with brutality. Under the overall command of SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, who had previously supervised the shooting of Jews and partisans in the occupied Soviet Union, the Germans targeted civilians as well as members of the Home Army. By 8 August, in one district of the city alone, the Germans had killed at least forty thousand civilians. The overall atmosphere of the German action against the Poles was captured by the SS commander-in-chief Heinrich Himmler, who later stated that he had told Hitler at the time of the rising that:

From the historical point of view the action of the Poles is a blessing … Warsaw will be liquidated; and this city which is the intellectual capital of a sixteen to seventeen million strong nation that has blocked our path to the east for seven hundred years … will have ceased to exist. By the same token… the Poles themselves will cease to be a problem, for our children and for all who follow us. 

Himmler’s use of language is significant. It is reminiscent of the ‘justification’ he gave to senior Nazis for the extermination of Jewish children. They had to be killed along with their parents, he said, because otherwise, they would only cause problems for future German generations. He had previously told SS officers that there was no point in killing Jewish men and allowing the avengers in the shape of the children to grow up for our sons and grandsons. On 2 September, German troops and their auxiliaries stormed a makeshift hospital treating wounded Home Army fighters. At first, the soldiers took valuables from the wounded, such as gold crosses and watches, but those that followed, many of whom were drunk, raped the women. Twenty-year-old Danuta Galkowa, hiding on a stretcher in the basement, under a blanket, heard the horror being enacted all around her:

It was for them entertainment. They were excited by the fact that the people were yelling. … I was in despair, I was afraid only of rape, because I wouldn’t be able to live through that. 

The wounded men of the Home Army who were present in the cellar could do nothing to protect the women. They had serious stomach wounds, broken legs and arms, and could not move. The horror lasted from eight in the morning until dark, when the troops finally left, setting fire to the hospital as they went. Danuta tried to escape, dragging the wounded Home Army officer who had protected her on the stretcher. She pulled him to the entrance, where the Nazis were shooting those trying to escape. A German auxiliary turned his gun on Danuta but it jammed, and in the smoke, darkness and chaos she managed to get away, over the bodies of those who had been murdered in the courtyard, together with the wounded fighter. Eventually, this man who had saved her life became her husband.

Conflict Among Allies:

The summer and early autumn of 1944 were, therefore, a time of conflict between the Allies, not only over what seemed to be the eternal question of Poland but also over the post-war shape of Europe, and, most particularly, Soviet intentions towards the eastern European countries that they were shortly to occupy. Towards the middle of August 1944, the Soviet general offensive began to slacken, Soviet armies outrunning their supplies since behind them lay an advance of some 350 miles. Soviet troops were on the East Prussian frontier and had bridgeheads on the Vistula and the Narew, while the Soviet command planned to wipe Army Group North off the map. The Finns
had already abandoned the German-Finnish compact and late in August were suing for peace, harsh though the terms proved to be.
In the event, the Romanians beat the Finns in the race to make peace. The Soviet hammer having battered three German Army Groups (North Centre and North Ukraine), it was now the turn of Army Group South Ukraine to fall under it. Even before a shot was fired, however, this Army Group faced disaster, hemmed in as it was between the
Red Army eager to fall on it and the Romanians, who were even more eager to betray it.

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On 20 August, Malinovskii’s 2nd Ukrainian Front launched its attack, encircling five German corps in the Jassy-Kishinev operation, while Tolbukhin’s forces trapped the Romanian 3rd Army. But defeat
in the field was outmatched and outpaced by political events when on August 23rd a coup in Bucharest knocked Romania out of the war with King Michael’s unconditional surrender to the Allies. Romania’s declaration of war on Germany followed in a trice and Romanian troops were ordered not to open fire on the Red Army. The Romanian defection had cataclysmic consequences for Germany with far more
than the fate of an Army Group involved: the fortunes of war in the entire south-eastern theatre had changed virtually overnight. With a German army hopelessly trapped and what was left of two Romanian armies laying down their arms, the whole of southern Bessarabia, the Danube delta and the Carpathian passes lay open to the Red Army. Henceforth neither the Danube nor the Carpathians could bar the Soviet advance and ahead of the Soviet armies lay the route to the Hungarian plains, the gateway to Czechoslovakia and Austria, as well as a highway to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

While these battles and the battle for Warsaw raged on, Winston Churchill met with General Wladyslaw Anders, Commander-in-Chief of the free Polish Army, at Polish military headquarters in northern Italy. In the context of the controversy over the future of Poland, this meeting, on 26 August, was one of the most revealing of the war. Churchill began by congratulating Anders on the performance of the Polish II Corps during the campaign in Italy. He also enquired about the ‘mood’ of the soldiers, given what they are going through at the moment. Anders replied that, while the spirit of his men was ‘excellent’, their great concern is for the future of Poland, and at the moment, the current situation in Warsaw. Churchill said that he and President Roosevelt had asked Stalin to help those fighting in Warsaw, but their request had met with a negative response. Churchill assured him that while they were not ready for joint action over Warsaw, the Allies were doing everything they could to provide aid via the air route. After some argument over the future of Poland’s eastern borders with the Soviet Union, Churchill promised that…

… since Great Britain entered this war to defend your independence, then I can assure you that we will never abandon you.

These words were similar to those he had used at the previous meeting of the two men in Cairo, immediately after the Tehran Conference. Anders himself had been imprisoned in Moscow’s Lubyanska prison during the earlier partition of Poland in 1939, and was under no illusions: as he told Churchill, Stalin’s declarations that he wants a free and strong Poland are lies and fundamentally false. Once again, Anders voiced his serious concerns about Soviet intentions based on current as well as past experience, including the massacre at Katyn:

As they enter Poland, the Soviets arrest and deport our women and children deep into Russia as they did in 1939; they disarm the soldiers of our Home Army, they shoot dead our officers and arrest our civil administration, destroying those who fought the Germans continuously since 1939 and fight them still. We have our wives and children in Warsaw, but we would rather they perish than have to live under the Bolsheviks. All of us prefer to perish fighting than to live on our knees.

According to the minutes recorded by camp, Lieutenant Prince Eugene Lubomirski, Churchill was ‘very moved’ by Anders’ words and added to his earlier declaration:

I know that the Germans and Russians are destroying all of your best elements, especially intellectual spheres. … But you must trust – we will not abandon you and Poland will be happy.

Anders, not surprisingly, was somewhat suspicious of Churchill’s words. He was right to be, not because Churchill was being disingenuous, but because Anders knew he was no longer in a position to make such a promise, considering that a Red Army of 6.7 million was already marching into his country. He reminded the British PM that the Soviet Union would be immensely strong after the war; he was sceptical of Churchill’s view that Britain and the United States would be able to restrain the USSR after the war through their superior supplies of planes, tanks and guns. Churchill was not promising that the Western Allies would be prepared to go to war with the Soviet Union if Stalin refused to guarantee Poland’s independence, but his reply implied the possibility of military action, something that he had explicitly ruled out earlier in the year.

Collapse, Courage and Conflict:

By the beginning of September, the entire German defensive system was on the point of collapse. At that point, Bulgaria, which up to this point had been at war solely with Britain and France, made the inexplicable and suicidal decision also to declare war against the USSR on 5 September, only to collapse within twenty-four hours after the Russians crossed the Danube. Bulgaria, Axis ally of Germany but at heart pro-Russian and Slavophile, received Soviet armies without a shot being fired and duly declared war on Germany on 8 September. Hitler still fed on hopes that the entry of Soviet troops into Bulgaria might well speed an Anglo-Soviet collision, as the Red Army made for the Dardanelles – whereupon German troops in Army Group E might act as a ‘kind of police’ (with British approval) to hold the line against Bolshevism. There was certainly Anglo-Soviet rivalry in the Balkans, involving both Yugoslavia and Greece, but nothing to precipitate outright conflict.

The courage and ingenuity of the Poles during the Uprising were truly remarkable. When the Germans cut off the water supply to the city, the Poles bored wells by hand. Then, on 1 September 1,500 defenders had to retreat from a position at State Miasto (Old Town), using the sewers accessible from a single manhole in Krasinski Square. This lay only two hundred and fifty metres from German positions, and General Bór-Komorowski, the Home Army commander, knew that a few gas-bombs through the manholes or an outbreak of panic in the tunnels would prevent anyone from getting out alive. He nonetheless gave the order, since the defenders had nothing more to lose. So, leaving the Old Town completely defenceless in the event of a surprise German attack, the entire force, along with five hundred civilians, including the wounded and a hundred German prisoners, went down the manhole. As Bór-Komorowski wrote:

Slowly, very slowly, the queue of waiting people disappeared … Each person held on to the one ahead. The human serpent was about one and a half miles in length. … There was no time for rest periods, because room had to be made for others who were waiting by the manhole. It was only with the greatest difficulty that the line moved forward, for the water had now almost completely drained away and the mud had been replaced by a thick slime which gripped their legs up to the calf. The soldiers had no sleep at all for several days and their only food had been dry potato flakes. The rifles slung around their necks seemed unbearably heavy and kept clattering along the tunnel walls … The last soldier in the queue entered the manhole just before dawn.

When the Stukas, artillery, tanks and finally infantry attacked the positions the next morning, initially believing the Poles’ silence to be merely a ruse to conserve ammunition, the Germans found their quarry gone. The Poles had escaped, at least for the present.

By this time, and in contrast with Warsaw’s impending fate, the Allied forces had succeeded in liberating Paris, though not without cost in terms of both men and machinery. The Americans had poured forward through gaps in the German defences which had been created by the carpet bombing of Brittany at the end of July. Collins’ VII Corps took Avranches and allowed US forces to attack westwards into the Breton hinterland and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us. 

Better communications and better inter-personal relations might have led to an even greater victory at ‘the Falaise Gap’, the mouth of an area eighteen miles wide by ten miles deep known as the Falaise-Argentan pocket, than the one gained by Montgomery, Bradley and Patton between 13 and 19 August. It was the news of a large Allied invasion of the south of France on 15 August, Operation Anvil, with 86,000 troops going ashore on the first day alone. That had persuaded Field Marshal von Kluge to withdraw from the Falaise pocket. The next day, Kluge ordered a general retreat out of the pocket, warning Jodl at the Army Headquarters that it would be a disastrous mistake to entertain hopes that cannot be fulfilled. Panzer Group West, comprising the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies, sustained around fifty thousand casualties, while the Allies lost twenty-nine thousand at the Falaise. Eisenhower visited the pocket forty-eight hours after the battle and later described the scene it as…

… unquestionably one of the greatest “killing grounds” of any of the war areas … It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

With Allied fighter-bombers flying three thousand sorties a day, the twenty thousand German soldiers who did escape, the shattered remnants of the hitherto formidable Panzer Armies including Group Eberbach, did so with their 88mm guns intact. After the war, Bradley and Montgomery blamed each other for the over-caution at Falaise, but Kluge’s defeat there led to his replacement by Field Marshal Model on 17 August and enabled the Allies to make for the Seine and to liberate Paris, which had risen on 23 August. Out of the thirty-nine divisions which took part in the Normandy landings, just one was French, 2e Division Blandée (Armoured) under General Leclerc. It fought very bravely in the battle to close the Falaise Gap, and entered Paris first on 25th, as part of the US Fifth Army, although this did not elicit any noticeable gratitude from the Free French leader, General de Gaulle. He had set foot in France for the first time since 1940 on 14 June, more than a week after D-Day, and only then for a one-day visit to Bayeux, after which he had left for Algiers and did not return to French soil until 20 August. In the meantime, Patton’s Third Army had broken out of Avranches at the end of July and had driven through Brittany.  While the French Resistance, the résistants and maquisards, under a separate command from the Free French forces were hampering German armoured retaliation, de Gaulle played little part in any of this from his base in North Africa.

In Paris, the German commander General Dietrich von Choltitz took the humane and historic decision not to set fire to the city. Hitler had demanded of him that Paris must be destroyed from the top to the bottom, that he should not leave a single church or monument standing. The German High Command earmarked seventy bridges, factories and national landmarks – including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame Cathedral – for destruction. But Choltitz deliberately disobeyed these barbaric instructions and continued to ignore Hitler’s enquiries as to whether Paris was burning. The Germans did not, therefore, fight in the French capital the battle of extirpation that they were simultaneously fighting in Warsaw, bringing about the utter destruction of the Polish capital and two hundred thousand of its people. Instead, Choltitz surrendered and went into captivity as soon as he decently could once the Allied forces arrived. He told the Swedish diplomat who negotiated the terms that he had no wish to be remembered as the man who destroyed Paris. In all, the French lost only seventy-six soldiers in the liberation of Paris, although 1,600 inhabitants were killed in the uprising, six hundred of whom were non-combatants. De Gaulle had asked Eisenhower to allow the French troops to be the first to into the capital, and the Supreme Commander duly gave the order to Leclerc to advance on the city on 22 August.

In any case, the Allies did not see Paris as a prime military objective rather than a purely political one. Eisenhower could spare the French 2e Division from the far greater battles that were taking place right across northern and southern France, fought by British, American and Canadian forces against crack German units. Omar Bradley in his memoirs dismissed Paris as a pen and ink job on the map. The first of Leclerc’s Sherman tanks rolled up the rue de Rivoli at 9.30 a.m. on Friday, 25 August. In the surrender document signed that afternoon by Choltitz and Leclerc, there was no mention of either Great Britain or the United States; the Germans surrendered the city to the French alone. De Gaulle arrived in Paris soon afterwards to make a speech at the Hotel de Ville in which he proclaimed that Paris had been liberated by her own people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, … eternal France. The Allied contribution was summed up in a single phrase. Putting the ‘Liberation’ in context, however, the historian of the Occupation, Ian Ousby, later wrote:

Paris’s concentration of both people and cultural monuments ruled out aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, so taking the city would soak up time and lives in a campaign already behind schedule and high in casualties. Besides, the capture of Paris was not tactically essential.

On the morning of 26 August, de Gaulle led a parade from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées to a thanksgiving service in Notre-Dame. When the head of the National Council of Resistance, Georges Bidault, came up abreast in the parade he hissed, ‘A little to the rear if you please.’ The glory was to be de Gaulle’s alone. Since he did not wish to steal de Gaulle’s limelight, Eisenhower himself did not enter the capital until the following day, five days after he had given the order for the 2e Division to take it.

The Challenge of Leadership:

For his part, although Stalin had decided by the middle of August that the Soviet forces would not support the Home Army in Warsaw, his policy towards the uprising was still not entirely transparent. On 18 September the Soviet authorities overturned their earlier decision and allowed one flight of American bombers en route to Warsaw to refuel on Soviet territory. Also, in the two weeks from 14-28 September, the Soviets themselves dropped supplies on Warsaw. However, since these drops did not involve the use of parachutes, much of the fifty tons of aid provided was destroyed on landing. They were conducted mainly for propaganda purposes so that Stalin could counter the growing outcry of world opinion about Soviet inaction in the face of the destruction of Warsaw, enabling him to demonstrate his public support to the Home Army without offering any effective assistance. Halina Szopinska, a twenty-four-year-old fighter with the Home Army in Warsaw, later testified as to how the airdrops had been a sham:

They had these small planes and would throw dry bread without a parachute and when it fell down it would just break into powder. … They would drop guns without a parachute – ammunition as well. There was no way we could repair it. So they pretended they were helping. They were doing it in such a way that it wouldn’t really help us.

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Above: Halina Szopinska, a member of the Polish underground Home Army (AK), who was captured and tortured by the NKVD in December 1944. She then served ten years in prison.

By the end of August, the NKVD had been told to detain and interrogate all Poles who had taken part in the uprising and who had managed to ‘escape’ into the Soviet part of occupied Poland. These interrogations included brutal beatings and humiliations, such as those endured and testified to by Halina Szopinska. The NKVD regarded them as spies for ‘the English’ as well as for the Germans. Halina was sentenced to ten years in prison and in Lublin Castle, she learnt how former members of the Home Army were executed by firing squad as traitors ‘to the motherland’.

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In the West, on 1 September, Eisenhower took over day-to-day control of all ground forces from Montgomery, much to the latter’s chagrin. Eisenhower’s plan was for a broad advance into Germany, whereas Montgomery wanted a narrow ‘single thrust’ into the heart of the Reich, spearheaded by his 21st Army Group. On the same day that Montgomery put forward his plan, Patton produced one in which his Third Army led the way instead, with characteristic immodesty, calling it the best strategical idea I’ve ever had. Omar Bradley, meanwhile, felt that his drive on Frankfurt ought to be the centre of operations. It is sadly impossible to believe that the best demands of grand strategy, rather than their own egos, actuated these soldiers, and Eisenhower had the difficult task of holding the ring between them and imposing his own view. His greatness, though doubted by Brooke and Montgomery, stems partly from his success in achieving that. Montgomery’s scheme would have required the Scheldt estuary to have been used as a direct supply route into the Rhine, but the Germans continued to hold it long after the fall of Antwerp in September, with the largely undamaged Fifteenth Army to the north of it. His plan to strike off across the North German Plain towards Berlin, crossing the Weser and the Elbe, made little military sense considering the level of resistance offered by the Germans until as late as April 1945 in this territory. It would also have reduced the US Third Army to the minor role of protecting the flank of the British forces.

Instead, the Supreme Commander stuck with his ‘broad front’ approach to the invasion of the Reich, which he believed would bring all our strength against the enemy, all of it mobile, and all of it contributing directly to the complete annihilation of his field forces. Partly because of the efficacy of the V-weapon flying bomb and rocket campaign against Britain, which could be ended only by occupying the launching sites, the main part was still to be the 21st Army Group’s advance through Belgium north of the Ardennes forest and into the Ruhr Valley, which would also close off Germany’s industrial heartland, and thus deny Hitler the resources to carry on the fight. Eisenhower split the 12th Army Group commanded by Bradley in two and sent most of the First Army north of the Ardennes to support Montgomery, leaving Patton’s Third Army to march on the Saar, covered to the south by the 6th Army Group which had made its way up from the Anvil landings in the south of France. By the end of August, Patton had crossed the Marne and was soon able to threaten Metz and the Siegfried Line. To his intense frustration, his advance was halted by running out of petrol due to the four-hundred mile supply lines to Cherbourg. However, Brussels fell to the 21st Army Group on 3 September and Antwerp the next day, but, as already mentioned, Antwerp was useless to the Allies without the control of the Scheldt estuary.

In September, two months after his sacking, Rundstedt was recalled as Commander-in-Chief West. Watching the Hitler Youth Division retreating over the River Meuse near Yvoir on 4 September, Rundstedt said what many German officers were thinking, but few dared state, that it is a pity that this faithful youth is sacrificed in a hopeless situation. On 11 September, the Allies set foot on German soil for the first time, when American troops crossed the frontier near Trier, yet Hitler still had armies numbering several million men, albeit far too widely dispersed. His ‘Western Wall’, the Siegfried Line, seemed formidable, and his reappointment of Rundstedt was good for the Wehrmacht’s morale, with Field Marshal Model remaining in charge of Army Group B, Rommel and Kluge both having committed suicide, after having been implicated in the Bomb Plot. Later in the month, Churchill – convinced that Hitler was a hopeless strategist – ridiculed him in the House of Commons:

We must not forget that we owe a great debt to the blunders – the extraordinary blunders – of the Germans. I always hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler, as it seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior to connecthim in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher. But there is one respect in which I must draw a parallel. Both these men were temperamentally unable to give up the tiniest scrap of any territory to which the high water mark of their hectic fortunes had carried them. … he (Hitler) has successfully scattered the German armies all over Europe, and by obstination at every point from Stalingrad and Tunis down to the present moment, … has stripped himself of the power to concentrate his main strength for the final struggle.

Yet even while the House of Commons was laughing at Hitler’s strategic blunders, the Führer was planning a concentration of German forces in the Ardennes that would once again astonish the world. Montgomery’s bold scheme to use the British 1st and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to try to capture the bridges over the Meuse and Rhine and thereby ensure the encirclement of the Ruhr to the north came to grief in mid-September in and around the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. Despite the highest order of heroism, mistakes were made in the planning stages which meant that it was doomed before it began. It was the largest airborne assault in history, but the intelligence that should have warned the 1st Airborne Division of two Panzer divisions that were refitting near Arnhem was given insufficient weight so that it did not take enough anti-tank weaponry to the drop zones. Operation Market, the airborne assault of Friday, 17 September, was initially successful, but the simultaneous ground attack, Operation Garden, reached Eindhoven and Nijmegen on the 18th and 19th respectively, but could not break through determined German resistance in time to relieve the paratroopers at Arnhem.

(to be continued…)

 

Posted August 22, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Axis Powers, Balkan Crises, Baltic States, Belgium, Berlin, Black Country, Britain, British history, Bulgaria, Canada, Compromise, Conquest, Crucifixion, Egypt, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Flanders, France, Genocide, History, Holocaust, Hungarian History, Hungary, Jews, liberal democracy, Marxism, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, North Africa, Paris, Poland, Refugees, Russia, Second World War, Serbia, Socialist, tyranny, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Warsaw Uprising, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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Summer Storms Over Hungary (II): Child Witnesses of the Holocaust, May-August 1944.   Leave a comment

Surviving Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghettos:

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Susan (Zsuzsa) Pollock was deported as a child of fourteen to Auschwitz from the Hungarian countryside in 1944. Her story is available to read and download at https://www.hmd.org.uk/resource/susan-pollack/. Apart from those who survived Auschwitz, there were many children who escaped the death marches and Arrow Cross terror in Budapest, and survived, scarred by the experience of loss of family and friends. Here, I quote published and unpublished testimony from these children remembering that dreadful summer of 1944.

Tom’s Tale – Air Raids on Budapest:

15 October 1944

The German occupation and the collaboration of the Hungarian state in it meant that the previous agreement with the Allies not to bomb the country was negated. The bombardment of Hungary began in the summer of 1944. The warm summer of 1944 was a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Two-year-old Tom Leimdorfer (whom I first met in the UK in 1987) often played outside in their small but secluded front garden on the Pest side of Budapest. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the airwaves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’.

These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest!’ They would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.

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The RAF was bombing them and their lives were under threat from them, but they were not ‘the enemy’ as far as Tom’s family was concerned. Tom’s father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front (pictured above with his unit) and Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not their ‘enemy’ either, but their hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, Tom wrote that the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.

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Tom’s ‘official’ baby picture.

May 1944

Tom Leimdorfer’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the small town of Szécsény, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother later told him that they last visited the elderly couple in early May 1944 (as shown in the picture of her with her mother, right), when Tom was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were deported to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was later told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished.

The Long Shadow of Auschwitz from Szécsény to Pest:

Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation being carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the Holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours.

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Another ‘Jewish’ child in Budapest in 1944 was Marianna (‘Daisy’) Birnbaum (née László), who wrote up her family and friends’ stories in her 2016 volume, 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. In her introduction to this, she wrote:

1944 was the most important year of my life. My childhood ended in 1944 and what I experienced during that time determined the decades that were to follow. Ever since the age of ten, I see the world as I then saw it. In the battle between God and Satan. Satan won, but we have not been told. By now, I know that the perpetrator can be a victim at the same time. However, this awareness does not help me to give up that hopelessly ‘Manichaean’ view of the world that the year 1944 had created in me.

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Due to luck and the bravery of my father, my parents… survived, but many of my relatives became the victims of German and Hungarian Nazism. … I also want to report on those who by some miracle had survived those terrible times, because their lives too had irrevocably changed.

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In the summer of 1944, she and her mother rushed to her Uncle Lajos Benke (formerly Blau, pictured below) for advice when her father was taken by the Gestapo. For a while, having an ‘Aryan’ spouse exempted Jews from racial legislation. Although her Aunt Juliska was non-Jewish, Uncle Lajos was registered as a Jew. They lived in an elegant apartment in Buda. He could give them no advice, but would not allow his sister and niece to return to Pest due to the allied bombing. They spent three days there, but Daisy’s mother grew nervous and worried that they would cause trouble for their hosts. In order to take up residence, even temporarily, they should have registered with the local police, but Jews were not permitted to change residence and so it was safer for them to leave. Daisy became six that summer, so she had to wear a yellow star. By then, her father, who had paid a large bribe to a Gestapo officer, was temporarily free.

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He also arranged Swiss protection for Uncle Lajos, who came to live with them in the apartment they shared with about twenty other people. In order to be with her husband, Aunt Juliska appeared daily in the house, despite exposing herself to the constant danger of air raids through these visits to the Jewish neighbourhood. Martial law was put into effect: Jews could only leave their so-called ‘protected houses’ for only two hours per day. In any case, she was never allowed to leave the house alone, though she sometimes rushed out in secret when she could no longer bear such a large number of people packed into the house, the permanent loud yelling and various other noises. Once outside, she walked down one of the main streets until stopping in front of the local patisserie. What happened next was one of those peculiar small acts of human compassion which randomly punctuated life during wartime:

… swallowing hard, I watched the children inside, sitting in the booths, licking their ice creams. Jews were banned from there, too, and I had not had ice cream since the summer before, because … by the time spring came, I was no longer permitted to enter such places.

Suddenly a shadow was cast upon the shop window and when I turned around, I saw a German soldier standing next to me. He must have been an officer because there were stars on his uniform. “Was magst du? Willst du ein buntes?” he asked. … Frightened, my response was barely audible. He took my hand and walked me with the yellow star on my dress into the patisserie and ordered two scoops of mixed ice cream for me. Of course, it was he who was being served but I believe that the people sitting inside understood what had happened.

The officer pressed the cone in my hand, paid and moved toward the exit. I followed him, the ice cream in one hand, the other that the soldier no longer held, hanging awkwardly, as if next me. I murmured my thanks as he hurried away without a backward glance. He was the one and only German soldier I had met during the war. Should I draw from this meeting a conclusion regarding the relationship between the German Nazi army and the Jews? 

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The map shows the ghettos and zones set out in the deportation schedule. Places referred to in the text: Szécsény, Balassagyarmat, Szolnok, Komárom, Cinkota, Csepel, Kispest.

Daisy’s Relatives & Friends in Szolnok & Komárom:

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Daisy’s father’s family lived in Szolnok, and her mother’s relatives were in Komárom, which was returned to Hungary through its Axis alliance. Of these two families, sixty-four perished in the various extermination camps, comprising men, women and children. Her father’s brother, her Uncle Bálint (above), was arrested on the German occupation of Szolnok, together with several of the wealthier Jews. They were beaten and tortured, first in the jail in the town and later in Budapest. Meanwhile, their families were deported from the town. Trains, made up of cattle cars, were already in the station when the gendarmes took Aunt Ilonka back to their home leaving Pista, aged twelve, on his own with a rucksack on his back, waiting for her in front of the wagons. She returned to the platform just as the huge doors were about to be slammed shut and locked. The gendarmes had been searching her home for hidden money and jewellery and had she not handed everything over, she would quite possibly have been beaten to death then and there. In the best case, she and Pista would have been put on the next train.

They did not know it at the time, but the first train was directed via Austria whereas the following one went directly to Auschwitz. Their catching the first meant the difference between possible survival and immediate death. They were eventually reunited with Bálint on an Austrian farm he had been deported to but found themselves separated again when taken to work at the Anker bakery in Vienna. They then survived an air raid and by the time they were transferred to Terezin concentration camp, there were no longer any trains being directed to Auschwitz. When they eventually all returned to Szolnok, they were able to begin a new life with the help of other jewels which Bálint had hidden in a different spot that he had shown only to Pista.

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Bálint and Ilonka also had an elder son, who was twenty-three in 1944. He was known as ‘Sanyika’ (pictured above). Barred from university because he was Jewish, he was put to work in the extended family’s iron and metal plant, though at heart he was a poet. Drafted into the forced labour corps in the army in 1940-41, he was dispatched to the Carpathians. After his parents were deported, his poems (stored in the attic of the Szolnok house) were thrown about by neighbours who ransacked the place, searching for anything of value. Many years later, Pista met one of Sanyika’s friends in Budapest and two others in Israel. They told him that Sanyika had become desperate after he had learned of the deportations of his parents. He stopped caring about his own fate, clashed with the guards who beat him severely. When his three friends tried to escape, he refused to join them. It was a cruel twist of fate that those whom he believed to have died survived, whereas he disappeared without a trace and was thought to have perished.

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Daisy’s mother’s family lived in Komárom and the neighbouring settlements. In early June 1944, Hungarian gendarmes put her grandparents into a freight train and sent them off to Auschwitz. Two letters from them have survived. The first was written to her around Christmas 1938, and the second came into her hands in 1995 when she found it among her mother’s papers. Her grandparents wrote it together, a day before they were deported from the Komáron ghetto. She realised that her mother must have carried the devastating message in her own clothing until after the liberation of Hungary and then when they escaped Hungary in 1956 and went to live in California. She reflected on how, when …

… soon after the war’s end I saw my parents – who were then in their thirties – having a good time (they even danced!), I was very angry at them for “forgetting so fast.” It took a long time of maturing until I understood that they forgot nothing: Just here and there they searched for a moment of joy in order to survive what had been barely survivable.

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Her mother’s younger brother, József Blau, sent two postcards to family members in July 1944, one of which encouraged his cousin to send a postcard to deported relatives, which was limited to thirty words in German, placed in an envelope and given to the Jewish Council in Budapest from where it would be forwarded. We know now that, in order to avoid panic among the newly-arrived deportees at Auschwitz, the Nazis made them send postcards to their families from Waldsee. The cards could be picked up in the office of the Jewish Council at Budapest, Sip utca 12 on the basis of published lists. Characteristic of the Nazis’ infinite cynicism, there was no need to put stamps on the cards sent in response, because the cards were destroyed, either in the Council or at the next step, since the addressees were no longer alive. Daisy’s mother also had a cousin in Komárom, Aunt Manci, whose daughter, ‘Évike’, was of a similar age to Daisy so that they became inseparable friends (pictured below). Uncle Miki, Aunt Manci’s husband, had been called up to serve in a forced labour camp at the beginning of the war and after a short time he was declared ‘missing’. They never found out what had happened to him. Aunt Manci and Évike remained alone until, in the early summer of 1944, together with Marianna’s grandparents, Aunt Manci’s family was deported and Évike was also taken to Auschwitz. Daisy wrote that she often wondered: Who held her hand on the ramp as they stood in front of Mengele?

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Another little friend in Komárom was Ági. She was also deported to Auschwitz with her mother where they were immediately gassed. Her father was in a labour camp at the time, but somehow survived and returned to Komárom in 1945. Jenő found no-one alive from his family and lived alone for months in their old house until he met Rózsi, a former acquaintance. She too had been sent to Auschwitz with her mother and her own daughter. The child clung to her grandmother which resulted in the two of them being sent immediately to the gas chamber. Rózsi, therefore, found herself in the other line of those who had survived the first selection. She was transferred from Auschwitz and worked in an ammunition factory. Broken, the lone survivor from her family, she also returned to Komárom and after a short time, she and Jenő decided to marry. However, soon after four or five young women who had spent some time recuperating after surviving the camps, also returned to Komárom. They recognised Rózsi as the “dreaded capo”, a prisoner assigned by the Nazis to supervise the rest of the prisoners in the camps. They visited Jenő and claimed that she had beaten and tortured them both in Auschwitz and later in the ammunition factory where they too had been transferred. Allegedly, he then pounced on her and almost strangled her. With a great effort, the neighbours succeeded in pulling him off Rózsi, taking her onto the grass outside to revive her. He then went into the house, left with a bag and disappeared from Komárom, reportedly for Palestine.

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It was, again, a twist of fate which meant that Daisy was not sent to Auschwitz with her grandparents. When the Germans occupied Budapest in March 1944, her grandfather had demanded that her parents should send her to Komárom right away, accompanied by her friend Mariska, and they both set out for the Western Station soon after. However, when they arrived at the station, there were police and soldiers everywhere, demanding to see documents. When Mariska admitted that whereas she was a Christian, her companion was Jewish, they were barred from boarding the train. However, had she been allowed to board, she would almost certainly have been deported with her grandparents, ending her life in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In early June, her grandparents, along with the rest of the Jewish community of Komárom, were first moved to the ghetto and then, a few days later, they were all herded into cattle cars to be deported. Gazsi, their shop assistant and factotum, helped the Bau family, although the gendarmes threatened to put him on the train too. Daisy’s dog, Foxy, who had been cared for by Gazsi for the previous few weeks, began barking at this struggle, and one of the gendarmes shot him dead. Gazsi then ran to the post office from where he mailed the Bau’s last letter, adding the last details about Foxy. The letter arrived on 13 June, Daisy’s mother’s birthday, the letter which eventually came into their granddaughter’s possession over fifty years later. Daisy recalled its immediate effects:

Neither before, nor after, have I seen anything like this. With the letter in her hand, my mother ran through the apartment in circles, screaming and tearing out her hair (literally). I was merely told that my grandparents, in the company of many relatives, were ‘taken away’; no-one knew where. … I was around fifteen when I found out that (Foxy) had been shot… Since then, I have been mourning him as another Holocaust victim from my family.

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Scarred Schoolfriends from Budapest:

In the capital itself, rumours had been circulating claiming that those who converted would not be deported so that many Jewish families tried to save themselves by seeking Protestant pastors who would help them by providing certificates of baptism without studying or preparation. In one of Uncle Józsi’s postcards, sent just before he was shot dead while being deported to Austria, he mentioned that some members of their larger family were visiting a parish priest. Tom Leimdorfer’s mother had already converted to Calvinism. Daisy’s father gained the assistance of the pastor of the Fóti út Evangelical Congregation and decided that both she and her mother should convert. Her mother, however, refused, and would not let her daughter attend either. Her father, therefore, got his ex-secretary to stand in for his wife, but he could not get a Christian child to stand in for Daisy, so she remained Jewish.

A number of Daisy’s friends and classmates also survived the year 1944 as children and grew up to be wounded people. Instead of losing their relatives to illness or old age, to traffic accidents or even random bombing, their family members were victims of a well-prepared genocide. ‘Tomi’ was born in Budapest in 1931. His father owned a large factory that produced light fixtures; his mother was a concert pianist. The entirely assimilated family, living on the first floor of a Rózsadomb villa, decided to take the final step and converted to Catholicism, mainly to avoid the increasing restrictions on Jews. Nonetheless, in June 1944, they had to leave their home, as Tomi, his mother and his older sister Edit were moved to a ‘Jewish house’. By then, his father was also in a forced labour camp. In October, all three of them had to report to the brick factory of Óbuda, from where they were supposed to be deported. Tomi’s father was able to provide them with Swiss protection documents and, therefore, three days later, they were moved to the overcrowded ghetto. There, Tomi shared a room with six children but he succeeded in smuggling them all out because he had two copies of the document proving that he was a Roman Catholic. Following his plan, two boys left the ghetto (one at each exit) with the documents, met outside, one returning with both copies so that the exeat could be repeated until all seven of them were outside the walls.

Ágnes, born in Budapest in December 1933, lived with her parents in an apartment which became crowded when her mother’s sister Irén, her husband Retső and their two sons moved in with them from the small town of Cinkota, near the capital, during the spring of 1944. Her father was soon drafted into the army, but as he was forty-six years old, he narrowly avoided being sent to the Russian front. Instead, he was directed into forced labour from where he was allowed to send a postcard to his family each week so that they were not too worried about him. Teaching at Ági’s elementary school was discontinued after 30 April and she had to wear a yellow star, a humiliating sign that had to be sewn on to each and every piece of outside clothing. The family was also forced to move to a house marked with a yellow star. Ági slept with her mother on a couch in the hallway. Jews were allowed to shop only after 10 a.m. by which time everything had gone from the shelves. Ági went to the local bakery and queued for bread, so at least they had fresh bread to eat. She did not remember whether they had ration cards, which were legally valid for Christians only. She did remember her Aunt Irén poking the worms out of a piece of meat and cooked it, but Ági refused to eat it. During the warm summer, the children played out on the flat roof, or on the staircase, as they were no longer permitted to go to the park. On 3 July, Ági’s Uncle Ernő and his sixteen-year-old son Péter went out to Csepel, the industrial island in the Danube, to look for work in order to avoid deportation. They were never seen again. The family later heard that they had been rounded up in a raid and later perished in Auschwitz, the father committing suicide by running into the electrified fence.

Before the spring of 1944, Marianna’s Jewish friends in Budapest led a very active outdoor life, getting ‘Brownie’ cameras and bicycles for their birthdays. As late as the winter of 1943-44, they went skying at Normafa, a popular skiing slope in the Buda Hills. However, outdoor life soon came to an abrupt end as Jewish families no longer dared to show themselves at places of leisure, even if not yet officially banned. They feared to call attention to themselves during the frequently conducted parasite roundups aimed primarily at Jews by Hungarian fascists. Following the Nazi occupation, they suddenly found themselves excluded from most public places and during the worst times the families lost contact with each other because they were ordered to live in different ‘Protected houses’. They didn’t meet again until 1945 when Marianna learnt that her best friend in Budapest, Marika, hidden in a nunnery, remained the sole survivor of her family. Her parents and her brother Andris were taken from their ‘protected house’ by the Arrow Cross paramilitaries and were shot into the Danube. Andris, Marianna’s first boyfriend, was just thirteen.

Ágota, or ‘Ágika’, was a silent little girl who loved her father more than she loved anyone. Whenever her father was at home from his forced labour service, Ágika always sat very close to him, but during the spring of 1944, she was at home alone with her mother, Ilus. When her husband was away, Ilus found it difficult to cope with the new world that seemed ready to destroy her and her family at any moment. She continually expected to be arrested by the Gestapo, a fear not quite unreasonable since Ágika’s father owned a rubber and tire factory which was now under the control of the Hungarian state, but could have been too useful a source for the Germans to allow to remain in the hands of the state. There were still a number of similarly wealthy Jewish families living in the same building. Once a green Mercedes stopped at the park entrance of the house, and a few minutes later, when the soldiers left, they took one of the tenants along. A few days later, when Ilus saw the distinctive Mercedes again from the window of the fifth-floor apartment, she assumed the worst when three soldiers got out and started towards the gate. As she heard the elevator approaching the upper floors, she grabbed her daughter and dragged her towards the balcony door, with the aim of throwing themselves off the balcony. Ágika struggled with her mother, preventing her from opening the door by biting her wrist before screaming at her:

You are not going to kill me, you murderer, I am going to wait for my Daddy!

While they continued to fight quite bitterly, the noise from the elevator shaft stopped, and the sound of boots could be heard from the floor below. Mother and daughter sat on the floor for some minutes, gasping for air, before bursting into tears. They were later hidden by a Christian family who, though well remunerated for doing so, were  risking their lives, as the ubiquitous posters chillingly proclaimed:

Whosoever hides Jews will be hacked to pieces.

Thanks to Ágika, the three of them survived the horrors of 1944. So did Gyuri, Ágika’s cousin, who moved in with them. His mother was the elder sister of Aunt Ilus and one of the many ‘who did not return’. His parents had divorced when Gyuri was little, so he lived with his mother, brother and maternal grandmother. His father was ‘reported missing’ earlier in the war, so Gyuri became a ‘half-orphan’ at the age of ten. In 1944, they lived in wretched misery with many others in a ‘Jewish house’ waiting to be deported. He later recalled the hostility of their ‘Christian’ neighbours:

We were gathering in the courtyard when the passers-by stopped in the street, cursing us and spitting at us over the iron fence. Watched by, and at the pleasure of the bastille crowd, we were taken in a long procession along Rákóczi út to the synagogue in Dohány utca.

Apparently, a German soldier filmed the entire action by the Hungarian gendarmes which can be viewed in the permanent collection of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The plan was to move the several hundred Jews to the railway station, but the manoeuvre was suddenly halted and all were marched back to the ‘Jewish house’, after being forced to hand over their watches, jewellery and the cash they had on them. With the help of relatives, Gyuri’s family then received Swedish protective papers and, together with twenty others, they were moved into the abandoned apartment of Aunt Ilus, which had become a Swedish ‘protected house’.

Kati was also born in Budapest in 1934. Her father owned a paper factory that he managed with his father and the family lived on the Pest side of the capital, in a house where one of the apartments on the upper floor belonged to them, while her grandparents’ apartment and the shop were on the ground floor. Although Kati’s father was conscripted to forced labour even before the war, they lived comfortably, without worries… until, at age nine and a half, the world changed around them. One of Kati’s most painful memories was that she had to go to school each day with the yellow star on her dress. Because their house was declared a ‘Jewish house’, they did not have to move. Instead, dozens of people were forcibly moved in with them. Kati took care of the younger children, among whom some were under six. She took them down to the air-raid shelter and played with them to distract them during the raids. One time, bombs were dropped very close by, but only shattered the windows and damaged a few pieces of furniture.

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Then one day, while on his way to join his company, Hungarian soldiers removed Kati’s father from a train at Nagyvárad and, suddenly, he went missing without a trace. Kati’s mother was able to procure copies of the ‘protection documents’ Wallenberg had been handing out, but it was too late because the Germans occupied their house and transported both sets of grandparents to the ghetto. Kati was sent to live with distant relatives and one of her father’s employees got hold of false papers for her, with a new name, Aranka Sztinnyán. Although she was with relatives, she felt terribly alone. Although I looked Aryan, I was not permitted out on the street, she recalled. A few weeks later, Kati’s mother, who had escaped from the Óbuda brick factory, came to fetch her. Together with ten other relatives, Kati and her mother hid in the coal cellar of an apartment block where, from time to time, they received food from unknown benefactors who were not permitted to see them. Kati does not remember being hungry, neither was she scared, except for the bombs. Her mother saved her from sensing the daily danger that surrounded them. When they returned to their home following the ‘liberation’, they discovered that, except for her father, everybody had survived. Eventually, he too returned from Terezin at the end of the war, having survived ten different concentration camps.

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Misi ‘Gyarmat’ was born into a ‘Jewish gentry’ family in Balassagyarmat, which had been the family’s home since the eighteenth century. His maternal grandfather, Ármin, was a well-to-do, well-respected local landowner. Although Misi’s parents lived in Budapest, ‘Gyarmat’ was the paradise where he, his mother and his younger sister Jutka spent their summers, immersing themselves in the pleasures of country life which offered unlimited freedom. His father, Dr László Gy. held the rank of lieutenant, working as a physician among the mountain rangers during World War I. In Apatin in Serbia, which was awarded to Hungary in 1941, László took over the medical practice of a young Christian doctor who was drafted to serve with the Second Hungarian Army on the Russian Front. He lived there between 1942 and 1944 when he went to live with his family in the ghetto in Budapest. When Misi’s maternal grandfather died in 1943, the family council decided that since both uncles were serving in forced labour camps, Misi’s mother would take over the management of the estate, and she and the children would not return to Budapest and Misi transferred to the Balassgyarmat Jewish school. Following the German occupation, the estate was immediately confiscated, and the family’s mobility was increasingly curtailed. The local Jews were moved into a hastily assembled ghetto and all those deemed ‘temporary lodgers’ were ordered to return immediately to their permanent places of residence. For Misi and his mother, this meant a return to Budapest, so his mother pleaded to be allowed to stay in Balassagyarmat in order to take care of her recently widowed mother. Her brother, home on leave, went to see the local police chief, but the captain denied the request, saying:

I am doing this in the interest of your sister, her children and for the memory of your father.

The meaning of this sentence became clear later, making it clear that the police chief knew exactly what would happen with the deportees. As in other villages throughout rural Hungary, he did nothing to rescue any of the local Jews but instead rendered fast and effective police work to accomplish their deportation. Next day, Misi, his sister and his mother left for Budapest. Two weeks later, those of their family who remained at Gyarmat, together with the rest of the Jewish community, were all crammed into cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz. One survivor later told them that, in the wagons, they had to travel standing, all packed in like sardines. One of the gendarmes stabbed the leg of an old woman who, due to her varicose veins, could not walk fast enough. Blood was spurting from her leg as she was pushed into the car. A dying man was shoved into another wagon and his body was not removed until six hours after his death, though the train did not leave until after those hours. Misi lost his grandmother in Auschwitz and all his childhood friends from Gyarmat.

Hoping to avoid deportation later that summer, Misi and his family converted to Catholicism. Whereas none of the churches stood up openly for the persecuted, during the worst period, both children were saved by members of the Catholic orders. Misi found refuge in the Collegium Josephinum on Andrássy Boulevard. Zsuzsa Van, the Prioress of the nunnery was later awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, on the memorial honouring those Christians who risked their lives to save Jews. Misi’s sister was saved by the Carmelite nuns in Kőbánya. Their paternal grandmother remained in the family apartment in Budapest, never sewed the yellow star on her own garments, yet somehow survived, along with both their paternal uncles. Thirty-five years later, Misi returned to his once-beloved Balassgyarmat for his first visit since those awful events.

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Most of the children of Budapest of 1944 were just one generation away from country life and many, like Ágnes had been born in the countryside and still had relatives there. She had been born in Endrőd, a town in eastern Hungary, but by the time she was in the first form, her family had moved to Budapest and she became another of Daisy’s classmates at the Jewish elementary school on Hollán Street. Until 1944, Ágnes’s happiest moments were spent at her grandmother’s house at Zalaegerszeg in western Hungary. Her father, György, was a journalist and newspaper editor, politically aware and active. He took his little girl seriously, talking to her about politics and other grown-up topics. His sudden disappearance, therefore, created a void that has accompanied her throughout her life. In November 1943, unable to bear their confinement any longer, he left his hiding place, a loft, said goodbye as if he were just leaving for the forced labour camp, and was never seen again. She also lost her maternal grandmother that same year, from blood poisoning, Her only son died of starvation at Kőszeg. Her paternal grandparents were deported together with their daughter, György’s sister. They were sent to a farm in Austria where Ágnes’s grandfather, a rabbi in Hungary, drove a tractor. All three of them survived, saddened and scarred by their son’s disappearance. Ágnes always remembers the gigantic capital Zs (for ‘Zsidó’, ‘Jew’ in Hungarian) in her father’s military record book. Her poem to him stands for the unfathomable sense of loss many of these children have grown up with:

...

I feel, you are off. Stepping out,

a well-dressed vagrant,

you never really leave; you are just stepping out,

looking back, laughing, at age thirty-eight,

I’ll soon be back, you nod and wave.

Your birthday would have been the following day.

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The Last Days of the War in the East:

It is a remarkable testimony to the dedication of the Nazis to complete their ‘final solution’ to ‘the Jewish Problem’ that their programme of deportations continued well into July. The huge Russian summer ground offensive, timed for the moment when attention in the Reich would be most concentrated on events in Normandy, was launched on 22 June 1944, the third anniversary of Operation Barbarossa. The counter-offensive, Operation Bagration (codenamed by Stalin after the great Georgian Marshal of the 1812 campaign). The attack was supported by four hundred guns per mile along a 350-mile front connecting Smolensk, Minsk and Warsaw. Bagration was intended to destroy the German Army Group Centre, opening the way to Berlin itself. The Red Army had almost total air cover, much of the Luftwaffe having been flown off westwards to try to deal with the Normandy offensive and the Combined Bomber Offensive. Much of the Third Panzer Army was destroyed in a few days and the hole created in the wildly overstretched German line was soon no less than 250 miles wide and a hundred miles deep, allowing major cities such as Vitebsk and Minsk to be recaptured on 25 June and 3 July respectively. By the latter date, the Russians had moved forward two hundred miles from their original lines. They encircled and captured 300,000 Germans at Minsk. Army Group Centre had effectively ceased to exist, leaving a vast gap between Army Group South and Army Group North. Bagration has been described by historians as being, from a German perspective, …

… one of the most sudden and complete military disasters in history. even in the months following the Allied invasion of Normandy, German casualties in Russia continued to average four times the number in the West.

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I have written about the tactical errors made by the German High Command, including Hitler himself, in my previous article. The movement of senior personnel on both the Eastern Front and, to a lesser extent, on Western Front, resembled a merry-go-round. Having been appointed commander-in-chief west in 1942, General Rundstedt was removed from command on 6 July 1944 after trying to persuade Hitler to adopt a more mobile defence strategy rather than fighting for every town and village in France. He was reappointed to his old post on the Eastern Front in command of Army Group South. By 10 July, twenty-five of the thirty-three divisions of Army Group Centre were trapped, with only a small number of troops able to extricate themselves. In the course of the sixty-eight days of this vast Kesselschladt (cauldron battle), the Red Army regained Belorussia and opened the way to attack East Prussia and the Baltic States. The year 1944 is thus seen as an annus mirabilis in today’s Russia. For all that is made of the British-American victory in the Falaise pocket, the successful Bagration offensive was ten times the size, yet it is hardly known of in the West.

On 14 July 1944, the Russians attacked south of the Pripet Marshes, capturing Lwow on the 27th. As a result, the Germans had been forced back to their Barbarossa start lines of three years earlier. Further south, Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front prepared to march on Belgrade, aided by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav partisans. It was extraordinary, therefore, considering that the war’s outcome was in no doubt by the end of July 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into the spring of 1945. The ‘Battle of Budapest’ played a major role in this. On 20 August, Marshal Vasilevsky began his drive to clear the Germans out of the Balkans, which saw spectacular successes as the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts crossed the River Prut and attacked Army Group South in Romania. With Hitler desperate to retain control of the Romanian oilfields, without which his planes and tanks would be forced to rely on failing synthetic fuel production within the Reich, he could not withdraw the Sixth Army, twenty divisions of which were therefore trapped between the Dnieper and the Prut by 23 August. On that same day, Romania surrendered, and soon afterwards changed sides and declared war on Germany: a hundred thousand German prisoners and much matérial were taken.

At the end of August, after the success of the D-day landings in Normandy had been secured, Horthy recovered his mental strength and replaced Sztójáy with one of his loyal Generals, Géza Lakatos. 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. By 31 August, the Red Army was in Bucharest, but despite having advanced 250 miles in ten days, it then actually speeded up, crossing two hundred miles to the Yugoslav border in the following six days.

Sources:

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

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

Zsolt Zágoni (ed.)(2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Published by the editor.

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

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

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

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

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

A Century Ago: Britain & the World in 1919 – ‘The Year of Victory’: Part One.   Leave a comment

Part One – January-June: A Tale of Five Cities.

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The Winding Road to World Peace:

The New Year’s Eve of 1918 that hiccupped a welcome to the first year of peace began a long procession of almost hysterically happy crowds which took possession of London on every possible excuse. Life was not yet back to normal (it never got back to whatever ‘normal’ was): food was only beginning to be de-restricted – meat, sugar and butter coupons were no abolished until August; five million men were taking time to demobilize and were not finding jobs easily, and money was short. Any spare money was needed by the country, as the photograph of Trafalgar Square at the top of this article shows. The Victory, or “Peace and Joy” loan brought in forty million pounds in three days, and the smallest amount that could be invested was five pounds. The total collected was seven hundred million. By November 1919 there would be just 900,000 still in ‘khaki’ uniforms. The wounded, like those photographed above, later in the year, were given blue uniforms. More than two million were wounded, and in January one man died as a result of a bullet wound received in 1918.

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At the beginning of 1919, “Hang the Kaiser!” was the cry in Britain. The newspapers discussed who would be his judges when he was brought from Holland to the Tower of London, and what they would do with him. Those who suggested that his life should be spared were considered unpatriotic, unless they also argued that, like Napoleon, he should be sent to St. Helena for the rest of his life. Despite an application for his surrender, he remained in the Netherlands. A Daily Express reporter who had first seen him at close quarters before the war said that over the previous four years, his hair had turned completely white.

At 11 a.m. on 3 January, Harold Nicolson (pictured below), a thirty-two-year-old diplomat at the Foreign Office, left Charing Cross station for Paris. He arrived at the Gare du Nord twelve hours later and drove without delay to the Hotel Majestic on the Avenue Kléber, where the British delegation to the Peace Conference was due to be housed.

Alwyn Parker, a Middle East specialist who had been made responsible for the well-being of the British delegates, had instituted a security-conscious, home-cooking environment consistent with sound British standards. Staffed by British domestic servants and reinforced by nameless security agents, the catering standards were, apparently, tasteless in the extreme.

 

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Overworked and underpaid, Nicolson served as a technical adviser on the committees that were drawing up the new maps of central Europe and the Balkans. Sketching in fresh boundaries for Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece and Turkey consumed his working hours. Although he found the work ‘passionately interesting’, it was not all plain sailing. His letters reveal how at times he was conscience-stricken by the burdens imposed on him:

How fallible one feels here! A map – a pencil – tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people. … Nobody who has not had experience of Committee work in actual practice can conceive of the difficulty of inducing a Frenchman, an Italian, an American and an Englishman to agree on anything.

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Harold Nicolson & Vita Sackville-West at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

These committees were not concerned with constructing the framework of the newborn League of Nations, President Wilson’s obsessive brainchild. Still, they stood at the heart of the conference’s deliberations, dealing with the fate of national minorities, reconciling the all-too-often conflicting and exaggerated claims of the great and the small powers. It was approvingly noted that the French Premier, M. Clemenceau, always audible, was equally rude to both. And as the plenary sessions of the conference, the politicians had neither the time nor the knowledge to challenge the recommendations of the ‘experts’, they became, in effect, the arbiters of these disputes, the final court of appeal. It was a responsibility that Harold Nicolson could have done without. Interminable committee meetings, drafting endless position papers, irregular hours, hurried meals, late nights and competing with closed-minded politicians, all put Harold under an intolerable strain. Exhausted, he had reached the point when he found himself reading sentences twice over. He sought advice from Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, whom he usually found languid in his habits, usually draped over a chair, ‘always affable and benign’, at his apartment in the rue Nitot. Balfour told him to…

… return at once to the Majestic – arrived there, you will go to bed. For luncheon you will drink a bottle of Nuits St George and eat all you can possibly swallow. You will then sleep until four. You will then read some books which I shall lend you. For dinner you will have champagne and foie grás – a light dinner. You repeat this treatment until Sunday at three, when you drive alone to Versailles and back. In the evening of Sunday you dine – again alone, that is essential – at Larue and go to a play. By Monday you will be cured.

He did as he was told and on Monday he noted in his diary that he felt again a young and vigorous man. Refreshed, he returned to his duties which, of course, included faithfully serving Balfour’s needs. Harold worked in close tandem with Allen Leeper, an Australian graduate of Balliol College, Oxford with a working knowledge of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Flemish, Russian, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian and Ladino. In keeping with the Zeitgeist, he was in favour of creating compact nation-states, to unite the Poles, Yugoslavs, Romanians, the Arabs and the Greeks, a process which would pave the way for the demise of the old, discredited system ruled by the Great Powers and lead to a new era regulated by the League of Nations and Wilsonianism. To Nicolson, at the time, these ideas were admirable, but later, writing in 1935, he thought they might appear utopian, but added even then that to many of us it still remains the most valid of all our visions.

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Thirty nations met at Paris to discuss the post-war world. Bolshevik Russia and the defeated Central Powers were excluded. On the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Each of the other four which were signed subsequently was also named after an area or landmark of Paris. The Conference opened officially on 18 January 1919 at the Quai d’Orsay. Raymond Poincaré, the French President, greeted the delegates, but his Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau soon took command in his typical high-handed, machine-gunning fashion:

Y a-t-il d’objections? Non? … Adopté!”

Edvard Beneš.

Harold Nicolson continued to be absorbed by the minutiae of the territorial commission’s deliberations, niggling questions that at a distance seem esoteric to an extreme, but which at the time took on grave importance. He explained to Balfour why the Italians should not be awarded Fiume, a judgement that was upheld by Wilson and Lloyd George. He was also considered something of a Czech expert and was impressed by Benes, the Czech Foreign Minister (pictured right), whom he described as altogether an intelligent, young, plausible little man with broad views. Benes based his case not so much on securing national rights as on sustaining the stability of central Europe. Nicolson agreed with this view and confidently told the Supreme Council that the historical border of Bohemia and Moravia needed to be respected, in spite of the fact that many Germans would be included. Teschen, Silesia, Oderburg were to be included in the new Czechoslovakia, along with Hungarian Ruthenia.

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All the Allies were invited to the Peace Conference which met at Paris in January 1919, but the important decisions were made by the ‘Big Four’, pictured below. The German government had accepted the terms of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which US President Woodrow Wilson had set out in the ‘Fourteen Points’ of his War Aims (see the map above) which he, and they, thought would form the basis of the peace settlement.

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The ‘Four Big Men’ were (left to right), the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George; the Italian Prime Minister, Signor Orlando; France’s Premier, M.Clemenceau; and Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA. They were the big figures at the Paris Peace Conference.

Wilson’s ideas were, therefore, the hope of victors and vanquished alike, and he was sincerely anxious to carry out his promises. But he lost influence because he had few practical plans to offer upon which his ideas of a just settlement could be built. By the time John Buchan published his account of these events in 1935, many histories of the Peace Conference had already been written in detail in many volumes. Its work had been bitterly criticised, and on it had been blamed most of the later misfortunes of Europe. But, as he observed, …

… it is probable that our successors will take a friendlier view, and will recognise more fully the difficulties under which it achieved. Its position was very different from that of the Congress of Vienna in 1814. Then the victors held most of Europe and had armies ready and willing to carry out their commands: now they were so weary that the further use of force was almost unthinkable. Then a little group of grandees, akin in temper, met in dignified seclusion. Now a multitude of plenipotentiaries sat almost in public, surrounded by hordes of secretaries and journalists, and under the arc-lamp of suspicious popular opinion. 

The difference in the complexity and scale of the two conferences is shown by the resulting treaties. The hundred and twenty articles of the Treaty of Vienna were signed by seventeen delegates; the Treaty of Versailles contained 441 articles and seventy signatures. The business was so vast that the mechanism was constantly changing. At first, the main work was in the hands of a Council of Ten, representing the five great Powers; then it fell to the US President and the European Prime Ministers; at the end, the ‘dictators’ were Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Had the three ‘architects of destiny’ been fully in agreement, or had they been men with broader personalities and more open minds, both the peace process and its products might have been better. To be fair to them, however, all three had to take different circumstances into consideration besides the merits of each case.

Wilson, who had been detached from the actual conflict, might have been expected to bring a cool and dispassionate mind to the deliberations, as well as a unique authority. But he found himself, quite literally, on unfamiliar territory, and his political mistakes in his own country had made it doubtful that Americans would ratify his conclusions. In diplomatic skill, he was not the equal of the other statesmen. Because he believed that the establishment of the League of Nations was the only hope of permanent world peace, he soon had to compromise on matters where the views of the practical statesmen conflicted with the ideals of his fourteen points in order to secure their acceptance of the Covenant. Moreover, he had the support of only a small minority of his fellow Americans; those who upheld the traditional policy of non-intervention in European affairs were hostile to him. This hostility back home also weakened his prestige at the Conference. Eventually, the Senate of the USA refused to ratify his work in establishing the League of Nations so that the country did not join the organisation, and at the election following the treaties, he failed to be re-elected. It soon appeared to John Buchan, that Wilson’s was …

… the voice of one crying in the wilderness, and not the creed of a great people. His self-confidence led him to cast himself in too high a part, and he failed to play it … The framers of the Treaty of Vienna a century before were fortunate in that they were simpler men, whose assurance was better based, and who were happily detached from popular passions: “There are times when the finest intelligence in the world is less serviceable than the sound common sense of a ‘grand seigneur’.” (F.S. Oliver, The Endless Adventure: III, 109.)

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Georges Clemenceau (left), French Premier & Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA.

As Chairman of the Peace Conference, Georges Clemenceau was a realist and had no faith in Wilson’s ideals. He was also an intense nationalist, whose policy was to give absolute priority to the security of France, and he translated every problem into the terms of an immediate and narrowly conceived national interest. He worked for the interests of France and France alone. He knew exactly what he wanted, which was to crush Germany while he had the chance. He regarded Franco-German hostility as natural and inevitable and wanted revenge not just for the Great War but also for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 in which Paris was occupied and Alsace-Lorraine was surrendered. Had Germany won, he believed, France would not have been spared destruction. Now that Germany had been utterly defeated, he had the opportunity he had desired, to destroy its power to threaten the security of France. He dominated the conference and his uncompromising attitude earned him the epithet, ‘Tiger’.

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David Lloyd George (above) was subtler and more far-sighted, taking broader views, but his power was weakened in his colleagues’ eyes by the election he had just fought and won on intransigent terms. Nevertheless, he recognised the need for a peace settlement that would help restore German prosperity as an important trading partner. He, therefore, favoured more moderate terms, but gave only limited support to Wilson’s ideals because Britain was bound by treaties concluded during the war for the satisfaction of her Allies at the expense of the defeated powers, and he was bound by his election pledge by which he had promised to ‘Make Germany Pay’, demanding penalties from the enemy. At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out. By 1919, the euphoria of victory was tempered with the reality as ex-servicemen returned to the fields and factories to seek their old jobs. If anything, As Simon Schama has put it, …

… this had to be the moment, perhaps the last, when the conditions that had produced the general massacre were removed. Away with the preposterous empires and monarchs and the tribal fantasies of churches and territories. Instead there would be created a League of Free Nations … This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history – otherwise the sacrifice the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. 

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Above: The Menin Road (detail), by Paul Nash, 1919

Fit for Heroes? – Boom-time Britain & the ‘Bolshevists’:

Britain was experiencing a post-war boom in trade, evidenced by the fact that the number of trade unionists rose to an unprecedented figure of almost eight million. As the unions flexed their muscles, thirty-five million days were lost by strikes and lock-outs, the highest figure since 1912. Trade unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the demobbed servicemen. In Scotland, their demonstrations, which included (for the first time) serious demands for Home Rule, were viewed as ‘riots’ by the authorities. The demands were fuelled in part by the astonishingly disproportionate numbers of Scots casualties in the War: over a quarter of the 557,000 Scottish servicemen had been killed, compared with a rate of one in eight among the rest of the British army. Ironically, it was the long tradition of being the backbone of the imperial army, from the American Revolution to the Indian Mutiny, that had resulted in them being put in front line positions during the Great War, often in the ‘vanguard’ of some suicidal lurch ‘over the top’.

Despite this contribution, in Glasgow, an eighth of the population was still living in single-room accommodation and the Clydeside economy was especially vulnerable to retrenchment in the shipyards. As men were demobilized, unemployment rose and the unions responded with demands for a shorter working week, to spread the work and wages available as broadly as possible. The campaign for a 40-hour week, with improved conditions for the workers, took hold of organised labour. They also demanded the retention of wage and rent controls. When they were met with stark refusal, a forty-hour general strike was called, culminating on 31 January in a massive rally, organised by the trade unions, which took place on George Square in the city centre of Glasgow. Upwards of ninety thousand took part. A red flag and calls were made, for the first time, for the setting up of a separate Scottish workers’ republic. The police read the ‘Riot Act’ and their lines charged the demonstrators and, mindful of having been caught by surprise in Dublin by the Easter Rising of 1916, the government claimed that the demonstration was a ‘Bolshevist’ uprising, sending twelve thousand troops and six tanks (pictured above) to occupy what became known as ‘Red Clydeside’.

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Many of these ‘Red Clydesiders’ soon found themselves ‘victimized’, out of work and on the road to England and its ‘new’ engineering and manufacturing centres. By 1919, for example, Coventry’s population had continued to grow from 130,000 in 1918 to 136,000, partly due to the delayed expansion of the British motor industry, inhibited during the War as manufacturing industry turned its attention to meeting wartime demand. As soon as hostilities were over the production of motor vehicles was again embraced with enthusiasm as both old and new contenders entered the market amongst the heavy competition. In 1919 and 1920 at least forty new car producing firms emerged. Many of these firms later failed and their names disappeared or were taken over by companies like Singer in Coventry, but in 1920 the President of the City’s Chamber of Commerce reflected on its recent growth:

Few towns and cities can point to a growth as quick and extensive as that which has been the lot of Coventry in the last two decades … The way Coventry has moved forward is more characteristic of a new American city fed by immigrants, than of one of the oldest cities in Great Britain.

Growth and immigration were beginning to have an effect on local politics. In 1919, as the city enjoyed its boom, so the fortunes of the Labour movement also prospered, with Labour capturing a third of the seats on the City Council. The short but strong national economic boom funded some, at least, of  Lloyd George’s promise to make ‘a country fit for heroes to live in’. Christopher Addison, the minister of reconstruction, oversaw the building of 200,000 homes, effectively marking the beginning of council house construction in Britain. Again, in 1920, the Coventry Chamber of Commerce was keen to advertise the fact that the Corporation had already, since the war, built a thousand houses for its workers at rates varying from six to ten shillings per week which were regarded as ‘comparatively low’.

Lloyd George’s only obvious rival was Winston Churchill. Having banged away in the 1918 election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, Churchill then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, opposing the continuation of the naval blockade. But his calls to strangle the Russian Revolution at birth seemed to spring from a deep well of sentimental class solidarity with the Russian aristocracy and the Tsars which marked him out, in the view of many, as an aristocratic reactionary himself. Churchill was reckless as well as tireless in calling for a commitment of men and money to try to reverse the communist revolution in Russia by supporting the pro-Tsarist White Army, which was certainly no force for democracy. But if he was deliberately goading British socialists by harping on about the Bolsheviks as dictatorial conspirators, it turned out that his diagnosis of what had actually in Russia in October 1917 was exactly right. There was ample reason to feel gloomy about the fate of liberty in the new Soviet Russia. By 1919, anyone could see that what had been destroyed was not just the Constituent Assembly but any semblance of multi-party democracy in Russia. After the war, British, as well as American troops, occupied parts of Russia. There was disagreement within the Cabinet as well as in the country as to what the British attitude toward Russia ought to be. Lloyd George felt that the perpetuation of the civil war by foreign intervention would give the revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, the perfect pretext to institutionalize his police state and find reinforcements for the Red Army, and he wrote to Churchill pointing this out to him in February 1919:

 Am very alarmed at your… planning war against the Bolsheviks. The Cabinet have never authorised such a proposal. They have never contemplated anything beyond supplying armies in anti-Bolshevik areas in Russia with necessary equipment to enable them to hold their own, and that only in the event of every effort of peaceable solution failing. A military enquiry as to the best method of giving material assistance to these Russian armies is all to the good, but do not forget that it is an essential part of the inquiry to ascertain the cost; and I also want you to bear in mind that the War Office reported to the Cabinet that according to their information intervention was driving the anti-Bolshevik parties in Russia into the ranks of the Bolshevists. 

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The Empire – Nationalists Strike Back:

With the evaporation of the authority of the US President in Paris, and the limited tenure of the French wartime prime minister, his fellow peacemakers, it was Lloyd George who grew in stature as the future arbiter of the European settlement and world statesman. While France sought military security, Britain sought naval and commercial superiority through the destruction of the German Empire. The British Empire, as Curzon had boasted the previous year, had never been so omnipotent. But despite Curzon’s complacency, all was not well in the far-flung imperial posts. First of all, however, and closer to home, trouble was brewing again in Ireland. Following the 1918 general election, in which the old Nationalist party disappeared and Sinn Féin won most of the Irish seats. The members of Sinn Féin who had been elected to the Westminster parliament decided to set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin, which first met in January 1919. It declared the Irish Republic in defiance of the British Crown for a second time. Eamon de Valera, who had escaped from an English jail, became its President and the King’s writ ceased to run in Ireland. At the same time, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA) became increasingly violent.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made on imperial matters during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government simply because it had promised it to them. If it kept its promise, it was because the promise had raised expectations that could not be denied, making the plaintiffs stronger and even more resolute claimants. But if it had not had this effect, and if Britain could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was subsequently modified, was determined much more by the conditions of that time; the interests, strengths and weaknesses of different parties then, than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the past. The conditions of 1919 determined that, initially, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. In the first place, the fact that there were outright winners and losers meant that there were, suddenly, a large number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, with only Britain, France, Italy, the United States and Japan in a position to ‘snaffle them up’. Japan was satisfied with controlling the north Pacific, America didn’t want colonies and Italy, whose contribution to the Allied victory was seen as negligible, was not thought to deserve any. That left the German colonies in Africa and the Turkish territories in the Middle East as ‘gift horses’ for the British and the French if they wanted them, which they did.

Any British government of that era, of any colour, would probably have wanted its share, but the fact that the coalition government in 1919 was basically the same as the one that had fought the war and was full of imperialists made it even more probable. Balfour, Curzon and Milner (as Colonial Secretary) were not the kinds of men to look gift horses in the mouth and exercise colonial self-restraint, and neither were the Dominions which had fought, represented by Smuts in the Cabinet. Lloyd George himself was not much bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists’ accepting extra colonies. If he had any qualms, Leopold Amery quieted them by writing to him at the end of the war, that whereas they had fought it over Europe, they would also…

… find ourselves compelled to complete the liberation of the Arabs, to make secure the independence of Persia, and if we can of Armenia, to protect tropical Africa from German economic and military exploitation. All these objects are justifiable in themselves and don’t become less so because they increase the general sphere of British influence. … And if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

In 1919, the British empire seemed secure enough from external threats, but it was more vulnerable than ever to attacks from within. It might be able to deal with one at a time, but what if it were challenged by nationalists on three or four fronts simultaneously? The first of these opened up in North Africa in March, when Egyptian nationalists, inflamed by Britain’s refusal to allow them to put their case for independence to the Paris peace conference and by the arrest and exile of their leaders, began a series of demonstrations, riots, acts of sabotage, and assassinations of British army officers.

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M. K. Gandhi

Meanwhile, in India, there was a series of boycotts, walk-outs and massacres led by the lawyer and hero of the campaign against the ‘pass laws’ in South Africa, M. K. Gandhi, who had recently arrived ‘home’. Nearly a million Indian troops had been in service, both in the ‘barracks in the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front, and, earlier in the war, in the disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Before the war, there had been violence and terrorism, but mainstream colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress; moderate in its aims, not embracing absolute national independence, and in its aims, which were constitutional. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi’s movement, however, worked unconstitutionally, outside the system. His distinctive contribution to the nationalist struggle was ‘non-cooperation’. This spelt danger for the empire: danger which even in peace-time it might not be able to contain. In April there was a rash of rebellions in Punjab serious enough to convince General Dyer that the Indian Mutiny was about to be repeated: which persuaded him to open fire on a crowd of unarmed Indians in a public square outside the Sikh ‘Golden Temple’ in Amritsar, and to continue to firing into their backs until his ammunition ran out, killing at least 380 and wounding 1,200. Also in April, the first serious Arab-Jewish clash occurred in Palestine. In May, Britain was at war with Afghanistan, and about to go to war again, it seemed, with Turkey.

Towards the Treaties – The Big Three & The Council of Ten:

As the Paris conference moved forward, Harold Nicolson became increasingly depressed by the self-centred, ill-informed, arrogant behaviour of the world’s leaders who had gathered in Paris.

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Ion Bratianu, the Romanian Prime Minister was a bearded woman, a forceful humbug, a Bucharest intellectual, a most unpleasing man who aspired to the status of a Great Power; the Baron Sidney Sonnino, the Italian Foreign Minister, emerged as the evil genius of the piece, obstructing everything with a breathtaking obstinacy and malevolence, while Signor Vittorio Orlando (pictured right), the Italian Prime Minister, was never able to rise to the level of his own intelligence. When the Italians decided to leave Paris in protest at their allies’ refusal to meet them half-way on their demands, Nicolson waved them off with a hearty “good riddance”, but they returned a fortnight later.

During the rest of the conference, Orlando remained interested only in securing an expansion of Italy’s territory and in discussions which concerned the satisfaction of these ambitions. Nicholson soon concluded that the conference was proceeding in a rather irresponsible and intermittent way. For this sorry state of affairs, ‘the Big Three’ were culpable, as far as he was concerned, especially Wilson. Hampered by his spiritual arrogance and the hard but narrow texture of his mind, he appeared conceited, obstinate, nonconformist … obsessed, in fact no better than a presbyterian dominie (schoolmaster/ pedagogue). Nicolson was not alone in this opinion: Wilson’s traits were soon picked up on by the Parisian press. Bitter at these public assaults on his character, Wilson contemplated moving the conference to Geneva, where he hoped to benefit from the more Calvinistic, sober and sympathetic Swiss. Paris was an unfortunate choice for a peace conference, as passions among the people were inflamed by close contact with the War and its miseries. Statesmen could not free themselves from the tense atmosphere that prevailed.

Wilson, Nicolson believed, was also responsible for what he and others regarded as a totally impracticable agenda and timetable. The three main subjects were territorial adjustments, reparations, and the provision of machinery to ensure peace. Under the first, the map of Europe was to be redrawn, and some parts of the map of the world. The Conference did not, of course, with a clean slate; the Austrian Empire had collapsed and fallen into pieces, and Poland and Czechoslovakia had already come into being. A number of treaties, not just that of Versailles, would be needed to lay down the new boundaries – St Germain, Trianon, Neuilly and Sévres. Mandates dealing with territories taken from enemy states were to be settled later by Allied Ministers sitting in the Supreme Council. But instead of giving top priority to the main purpose of the conference, the peace settlement with Germany, Wilson kept his colleagues busy playing word games in drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations, his pet cause, and by fiddling with the maps of central and eastern Europe and Asia Minor.  In this way, the German treaty was effectively put on hold until the end of March, nine weeks after the conference had opened.

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David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in 1919, at the height of his power, the man who won the war. As the head of the Conservative-Liberal-Labour wartime coalition, his government was returned at the General Election in December 1918, with an overwhelming majority of more than three hundred in the House of Commons. The majority in the total of votes was strangely less marked – five million for the government and 4.6 million against.

Neither did Lloyd George escape Nicolson’s criticism. Dressed in a bedint grey suit, the British PM hadn’t the faintest idea of what he is talking about, Nicolson complained. He tried to prime Balfour to protest against his Premier’s ‘madcap schemes’, but Balfour proved ‘infinitely tiresome’ and fobbed him off: Yes, that’s all very well, but what you say is pure aesthetics! But before long, Nicolson came to appreciate Lloyd George’s uphill struggle at the conference against those who were more extreme: Quick as a kingfisher, in Harold’s view, as he saw Lloyd George fending off excessive Italian or French demands, not always with complete success. He fought like a Welsh terrier, he told his father, as Lloyd George strove to modify the ‘punitive’ terms of the German treaty. Invited to attend meetings of ‘the Big Three’ in his capacity as an expert, Nicolson witnessed their capricious handling of affairs, which he recorded in his letters to his wife Vita:

Darling, it is appalling, those three ignorant and irresponsible men cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake, and with no one there except Hadji … Isn’t it terrible – the happiness of millions being decided in that way?

When he politely protested, Nicolson was condescendingly put down by Clemenceau: “Mais, voyez-vous, jeune homme … il faut aboutir.” But there were opportunities to advise and influence, or educate the three men, usually over a huge map on the carpet of a nearby study. Already dispirited at the way the conference was, or rather was not, proceeding, by mid-February Nicolson was beginning to despair, as he wrote to his father:

The Council of Ten are atrophied by the mass of material which pours in upon them … We are losing the peace rapidly and all the hard work is being wasted. The ten haven’t really finished off anything, except the League of Nations, and what does that mean to starving people at Kishinev, Hermannstadt and Prague? It is despairing.

In a similar vein to Oliver’s statement above, Nicolson added that What we want is a dictator for Europe and we haven’t got one: And never will have! As the conference ‘progressed’, both Europe and the Middle East continued in a state of confusion. The old empires had fallen; new nations had already set up governments. Starvation and disease aggravated the horrors resulting from war. The statesmen were forced to act quickly. They had to consider not only what they believed ought to be done, but also what their electorate demanded. On April Fool’s Day, Harold Nicolson and Leeper left Paris on a special mission headed by General Jan Smuts, the South African member of Britain’s War Cabinet. They were bound for Budapest where Nicolson had spent part of his childhood during his father’s diplomatic posting there and where, on 21 March, a communist revolution led by Béla Kun had taken place; their assignment was to investigate its ramifications. For the world’s leaders gathered in Paris, the spectre of Bolshevism was truly haunting Europe: it threatened widespread starvation, social chaos economic ruin, anarchy and a violent, shocking end to the old order. Harold wrote to his wife, Vita, about how the Germans made use of this threat:

They have always got the trump card, i.e. Bolshevism – and they will go Bolshevist the moment they feel it is hopeless to get good terms.

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This was one of the main themes of Lloyd George’s cogently argued but largely ignored Fontainebleau memorandum. Small wonder, then, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism in Hungary registered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. I have written more about Smuts’ mission to Budapest elsewhere on this site. During Nicolson’s absence from Paris, the prospects for a settlement based on Wilson’s new world order had receded. The French put forward extreme ideas that would extend French sovereignty or influence into the Rhineland. Lloyd George and Wilson hotly opposed these demands, seeing in them the seeds of another war. Eventually, a compromise was worked out that called for an allied occupation of the Rhineland with staged withdrawals, backed by an Anglo-American guarantee of the French frontiers. But Nicolson and many others harboured a ‘ghastly suspicion’ that the United States would not honour the signature of its delegates: it became the ghost at all our feasts, he wrote. From mid-May to mid-June the German treaty hung on a razor’s edge. Word reached Paris that the German government was prepared to sign it but that public opinion would not allow it without allied concessions. Nicolson agreed with the German public:

The more I read (the treaty), the sicker it makes me … If I were the Germans I shouldn’t sign for a moment. … The great crime is the reparations clauses, which were drawn up solely to please the House of Commons.

The peace treaties which resulted reflected the spirit of the conference, in which were represented opposing forces demanding, on the one hand, the rewards of victory, and on the other, the magnanimous settlement of conflicting claims designed to secure permanent peace. The result was a decisive triumph for the victors, but the influence of the need for a permanent peace was not entirely lost. On the one hand, there was no open discussion, and the main points of the settlement were secretly decided and imposed by the ‘Big Three’. The defeated Powers were disarmed, but the victors maintained their military strength.  On the other hand, it may be claimed that the map of Europe was redrawn to correspond with national divisions, to some extent at least and that the ‘Covenant of the League of Nations’ seemed to be a definite step towards the preservation of international peace. It formed the first part of each treaty, followed by territorial changes and disarmament clauses, such as the following from section one of the Treaty of Versailles:

By a date which must not be later than 31 March 1920, the German Army must not comprise more than seven divisions of infantry and three divisions of cavalry. 

By this article, the German Army was limited to a hundred thousand men and committed to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of frontiers. The long list of other restrictions included the prohibition of German use of submarines, tanks and poison gas. The disarmament of Germany was to be strictly enforced, but it was combined with a solemn pledge by the other nations themselves to disarm, which promised trouble in the future. In spite of Wilson’s principles, penal clauses were added to the treaties. The penal proposals, which had played so great a part in the ‘khaki’ election in Britain, were reduced more or less to the matter of reparations. Reparations were to be exacted from Germany alone; she had to undertake to pay the cost of the War, as her Allies were bankrupt. John Buchan commented on the futility of this exercise:

No victor has ever succeeded in reimbursing himself for his losses, and a strange blindness seemed on this point to have overtaken the public mind. 

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While rich in capital wealth, this could not be ‘extracted’ for its creditors, and its exportable surplus had never been great and was now likely to be very small. It could only pay large sums by borrowing from one or other of the Allies. At Paris, there was no agreement on the total sum of reparations to be paid, but there was much talk about what items should be included in the reparations bill. Smuts, whom Harold Nicolson considered a splendid, wide-horizoned man, now showed that his character, though ‘simple’, was also exceptionally ‘intricate’. Concerned that the bulk of the reparations would go to France, he concocted a creative formula to include separation allowances for soldiers’ families, as well as pensions for widows and orphans. His prescription effectively doubled the potential bill, however, and would not have been to Nicolson’s liking. Yet a special committee of solemn ‘pundits’ in Britain had fixed its capacity to pay at the preposterous figure 24,000 million pounds sterling. The Conference reduced this sum to less than half, and in 1921 a special allied commission whittled it down to 6,600 million, then to two thousand, and in 1932 further payments were dropped. But more unfortunate still was the clause which extorted from Germany a confession of her sole responsibility for the War. This was article 231 of the Treaty, the notorious ‘war guilt’ clause, that compelled Germany and her allies to accept full responsibility for…

… causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.  

It was not, Buchan suggested in 1935, …

… the business of any conference to anticipate the judgment of history, and to force a proud nation to confess that her sacrifice had been a crime was a breach of the human decencies. 

The Final Week – Scuttling Ships & Salvaging the Settlement:

Could anyone salvage something from this mess? Surprisingly, perhaps, Nicolson looked to Lloyd George for this. Hitherto, he had been quite critical of Lloyd George’s policies, especially in Asia Minor, which eventually to lead to his downfall. As he sought to scale down the reparations bill, which he saw as ‘immoral and senseless’; to revise the territorial settlement in Silesia to Germany’s advantage; and to grant Germany membership of the League of Nations, Nicolson’s admiration grew, particularly as he fought alone. The French were, quite naturally, furious at him for what they considered to be a betrayal of their interests. By contrast, Wilson’s passivity infuriated Harold, who couldn’t understand why the US President would not take the opportunity to improve the draft treaty. He wrote again to his father, voicing the view of the younger generation of British diplomats:

There is not a single person among the younger people here who is not unhappy and disappointed at the terms. The only people who approve are the old fire-eaters.

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After much hesitation, and under the threat of renewed force, the German government accepted the treaty. Despite his disappointment with its terms, Harold Nicolson breathed a huge sigh of relief that there would be no return to hostilities. Exactly a week before the treaty was due to be signed, however, there was a dramatic turn of events when Admiral von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German fleet blockaded at Scapa Flow off Orkney, eight months after its surrender. This is shown in the pictures above and below. Of the seventy-four warships interned, forty-eight sank within an hour when the German sailors opened the sea-cocks on the Admiral’s order. He said that he was obeying the Kaiser’s orders, given to him before the war, that no German battleship should be allowed to fall into enemy hands, and denied that he was in breach of the Armistice terms, since he had had no notice of its extension beyond 21 June, the day of expiry. The German sailors risked their lives in carrying out von Reuter’s orders. At noon on the 21st, the German ensign was run up, the battleships began to settle, and their crews crowded into boats or swam for it. Some of the British guardships, uncertain of what was happening, opened fire, and there were over a hundred casualties.

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The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 in the Galerie des Glaces (‘Hall of Mirrors’) at the palace of Versailles, where half a century before the German Empire had been founded on the degradation of France. Harold Nicolson witnessed the occasion and recorded it in careful detail. The ‘Galerie’ was crowded, with seats for over a thousand. Clemenceau, small and yellow, orchestrated the proceedings. “Faites entrer les Allemands,” he called out. Dr Hermann Müller and Dr Johannes Bell, heads held high, eyes studying the ceiling, one looking like “the second fiddle” in a string ensemble, the other resembling “a privat-dozent“, were led to the table to sign the treaty. No-one spoke or moved. Having committed Germany to the treaty, they were escorted from the hall “like prisoners from the dock”. Over the “breathless silence”, Clemenceau rasped: “Messieurs, la séance est levée.”  Outside, salvoes were fired, while a squadron of aeroplanes flew overhead. Crowds cheered and yelled, “Vive Clemenceau … Vive l’Angleterre.” After the ceremony Clemenceau, with tears in his eyes, was heard to say: “Oui, c’est une belle journée.” Exhausted at the end of an extraordinary day, Nicolson lamented that it has all been horrible … To bed, sick of life.

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General Smuts signed the Versailles Treaty only on the grounds that something of the kind, however imperfect, was needed before the real work of peace-making could begin. But, according to John Buchan, the Treaty proved to be a grave hindrance in that task. For John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, the ‘peace’ was a ‘Carthaginian’ imposition. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, first published in 1919, he wrote a damning indictment of both the process and product of the Treaty:

Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin. … Paris was a nightmare. … A sense of impending catastrophe overhung the frivolous scene. … Seated indeed amid the theatrical trappings of the French Saloons of State, one could wonder if the extraordinary visages of Wilson and Clemenceau, with their fixed hue and unchanging characterisation, were really faces at all and not the tragi-comic masks of some strange drama or puppet-show. …

010For John Buchan, the hopeful element in what had been signed lay in its prefix – the Covenant of a new League of Nations, the one remnant left of Wilson’s dreams; the hope was that the reaction against the horrors of war might result in an abiding determination for peace. Machinery was provided to give a system to fulfil this desire. Membership of the League was open to any self-governing state which accepted its principles; it required its members to refrain from war until the quarrel had been submitted to its judgement and to take corporate action against any breaker of the peace. It was not a super-state with a military force as its sanction, but a league of states whose effectiveness in a crisis would depend upon how far its members would be prepared to act collectively. There was no abandonment of sovereign rights, except to a very minor extent. It began as a league of the victorious and neutral Powers, but the defeated Powers were given the right of delayed entry.

 

Above (Right): a facsimile of some of the signatures on the Treaty.

Concluding Versailles – A Toothless Treaty? The Covenant & Council of the League of Nations:

From the start, the League was handicapped by the facts that it was widely regarded as the caretaker of the Peace treaties and therefore suspect to those who found them difficult to come to terms with, and by the fact that the USA refused to join, thereby weakening any chance of collective action. But it was the best that could be done at that juncture by way of international cooperation, and even its flawed and modest beginnings were soon seen as an advance in peacemaking and peacekeeping in the world. It was often said in the 1920s and ’30s that a fundamental weakness of the League of Nations that it ‘lacked teeth’, that it was not prepared to threaten potential and actual aggressors with military force. However, the original clauses in the Covenant contradict this contention. They state that in the case of aggression or threat of aggression, the Council of the League should advise upon how this threat should be met: military action was not excluded. Moreover, if any member of the League did resort to war, the Council would recommend to the governments concerned what effective military, naval and air force the members of the League should contribute. Members of the League were expected to permit the passage through their territories of the armed forces of other members of the League. These articles, therefore, totally envisage the possibility of military action by the League in order to deter aggression. Although the requirement of unanimity on the part of the Council could effectively negate these provisions in certain circumstances, the ‘teeth’ were there, if only the principal Powers were willing to put them to work. In his course notes for the Open University, prepared in 1973, Arthur Marwick pointed to the scope of the problems facing the peacemakers in 1919:

A war on such an unprecedented scale obviously left problems of an unprecedented nature. Insulated as we have been in these islands, we can easily forget the immense problems involved in the collapse of old political frontiers, from the mixing of races in particular areas, from the reallocation of territorial boundaries, and from the transfer of populations…

The Treaty of Versailles altogether consists of 440 articles and it takes up 230 pages of Volume LIII of the ‘Parliamentary Papers’ for 1919. From the document itself, we can see the very real complexities and difficulties which faced the peacemakers. From the detail in some parts of the Treaty, we can see what peacemaking is really like, as distinct from the brief text-book accounts which merely summarise the broad principles; we can see what is involved in putting those principles into practice. The Treaty of Versailles expressed certain intentions about settling the map of Europe. But, as with all historical documents, we do learn things from it about the fundamental assumptions of the men who drafted it. And throughout the entire Treaty, there is a good deal of ‘unwitting testimony’ about the political events, social conditions and cultural attitudes in Europe in 1918-19. A rapid glance at the map below will show that a serious attempt was made in 1919 to arrange the frontiers of the states so that the main boundaries coincided with the national divisions of the European peoples. As a result of the treaties, only a small minority, about three per cent, was still under the subjection of other nationalities. In many cases, the peoples themselves had taken the initiative and proclaimed their independence and the peacemakers simply had to accept what had already been accomplished. Their task was ‘simply’ to fix the new boundaries of these ethnic groups. But in doing so, they were responsible for some gross injustices, as the map also shows.

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(to be continued).

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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Armistices of November 1918 and their Aftermath in Central Europe.   Leave a comment

Centrifugal Forces & Rival Nationalisms:

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Historical Perspectives & ‘Historic Hungary’:

The armed hostilities of the First World War formally came to an end with the armistice signed between the Entente and Germany at Compiegne on 11 November 1918. However, fighting did not cease everywhere, certainly not along the borders with Hungary, where the seceding nationalities of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire were lending weight to their territorial claims through the force of arms, creating the status quo sanctioned by the victors who assembled in Paris to reconstruct the order of Europe and the wider world on 12 January 1919. It was largely the impossibility of tackling this situation that swept away the ‘pacifist democracy’ which took over in Hungary at the end of the war and thwarted the first the country had obtained for a transition to democracy. A variety of reasons have been given by historians (and politicians) for the dissolution of historic Hungary. Whereas some continue to believe firmly that it was a viable unit dismembered by a combination of rival nationalisms within the region of central Europe with the complicity of western great powers, others believe that it was the product of centrifugal forces in Europe as a whole, while acknowledging that the precise way in which the process took place was fundamentally influenced by the contingencies of the war and the peace that  concluded it. Far from being seen as predictable or inevitable at the time, the outcome shocked even those sharpest contemporary critics of the darker aspects of the pre-1914 social and political establishment in Hungary and its policy towards the national minorities.

Lines of demarcation in historic Hungary – Neutral zones (November 1918 – March 1919)

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It was all the more shocking for them because they came largely from the more progressive camp who were well-disposed towards the western liberal democracies, but whose future in Hungary’s political scene was destroyed by the circumstances of peacemaking. The tragedy of the aftermath of the First World War, its armistices and the Paris Peace Treaties, especially – in the case of Hungary – that of Trianon in 1920, was that it contributed towards the survival of reactionary nationalist forces which had steered the country into the abyss of war and all its negative consequences in the first place. President Wilson had ‘decreed’ that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. ‘Self-determination’ was to be the guiding principle; plebiscites would make clear ‘the people’s will’. In Hungary’s case, this was to mean that the new boundaries would be drawn to exclude all but the majority Magyar-peopled areas of the Carpathian basin. Also, the new Hungary soon found itself in the position of having a surplus of wheat which it could market only in a world already overstocked with grain. The collapse in world wheat-prices increased the difficulty in providing funds to buy the timber and other raw materials the country required. Moreover, Budapest had grown to its size as the largest city in central Europe as the capital of a large country which had now been reduced by half and would soon be reduced by two-thirds. Over a third of the Magyar peoples were now living outside the country.

An Assassination on Hallowe’en & The ‘Aster Revolution’ in Hungary:

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On 4 November 1918, Austria-Hungary signed an armistice with Italy in Padua. Four days earlier, on All Hallow’s Eve, 31 October unidentified soldiers broke into the home of the former Hungarian Prime Minister, István Tisza (pictured above in a painting by Gyula Benczúr), and shot him dead. Other assailants were also on their way, it was reported, to assassinate the hated count. For four whole years between 1913 and May 1917, when he was dismissed by Charles IV, he had headed the war cabinet. He was a born party leader who possessed such an effective political personality that he had been able to defend the old order with fundamental force. In 1914, he had opposed the declaration of war, not out of principle but because of his belief that the Monarchy was unprepared. By that time, he had already survived one assassination attempt by an MP carrying a revolver. He was the first victim of a revolutionary wave which followed on naturally from the loss of the war, as it did in Germany. However, it was not just the politicians and the political order and system which was affected by this wave. It led to the extensive loss of life and property throughout Hungarian society. The ragged, bitter soldiers streaming home from the collapsed fronts encountered people sunk in misery at home; nearly every family was mourning someone lost in the war or waiting for a prisoner of war to return. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had won over many of the prisoners, many thousands of whom still remained there, voluntarily fighting alongside the Red Army in the civil war that followed. Strikes and mutinies had been on the agenda throughout 1918 and were now also fuelled by these new converts to Bolshevism.

Even amongst all this domestic turmoil, the military situation looked deceptively good until a few months before the end of the war. Austro-Hungarian armies were still deep in enemy lands, with the war aims apparently accomplished. It was only after the last great German offensive on the Western Front had collapsed in August 1918, and the Entente counter-offensive started there as well as in the Balkans, that the Monarchy’s positions on all fronts became untenable. Commenting on the impending surrender of Bulgaria, Foreign Minister István Burián’s evaluation of the situation before the Common Council of Ministers on 28 September was brief and unequivocal: That is the end of it. On 2 October, the Monarchy solicited the Entente for an armistice and peace negotiations, based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, only to be disappointed to learn from the reply that, having recognised the Czecho-Slovak  and South Slav claims, Wilson was in no position to negotiate on the basis of granting the ethnic minorities autonomy within an empire whose integrity could no longer be maintained. For a century, that empire had been saved from collapse only by the will of its rulers, the Hapsburgs. It had been dominated by its German and Magyar masters, who had failed to come to terms with the Czechs, Poles, Croats, Slovenes and Romanians living in its peripheries.

By mid-October, all the nationalities had their national councils, which proclaimed their independence, a move which now enjoyed the official sanction of the Entente; on 11 October, the Poles seceded from the Empire. The Hapsburg dynasty had held together a huge territory in Central Europe, centring on the Middle Basin of the Danube, so that certain economic advantages accrued to its millions of inhabitants. There was free trade within that vast territory; a unified railway and river transport system and an outlet to the Adriatic Sea assisted imperial trade and commerce. There was a complementary exchange of the products of the plain and the mountains – grain for timber and materials. This ramshackle empire could not withstand the strain of four years of war. The monarchy was collapsing into chaos by this time as Charles IV made a desperate attempt on 16 October to preserve it by announcing the federalisation of Austria, which was to no avail. At the front, the Italians took bloody revenge on the disintegrating army of a state which was breaking apart, launching an offensive in the Valley of Piave on 23 October which left an indelible mark of horror on a generation of men. Between the 28th and the 31st the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats and the Ruthenes also seceded from the Empire.

Within Hungary, the effects of the revolutionary ‘milieu’ were mitigated, to a large extent, by Hungary’s bourgeois revolutionary leader, Count Mihály Károlyi, who as a radical left-wing aristocrat, was soon to distribute his estate among the landless. October 1918 had certainly been a month of dramatic scenes in the Hungarian parliament. In the country, deposed Prime Minister István Tisza was widely held to bear supreme responsibility for all the suffering of the previous four years. He declared:  I agree with … Count Károlyi. We have lost this war. He referred to a speech made on 16 October, the same day that Charles IV had announced the federalisation of Austria, by the leader of the opposition, who had also warned that Hungary might lose the peace as well unless suitable policies were adopted. These ought to have included, in the first place, the appointment of an administration acceptable to the Entente powers as well as to a people whose mood was increasingly revolutionary in order to save the territorial integrity of the country and to prevent it falling into anarchy.

On 23 October, the third cabinet of Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle stepped down and on that night Károlyi organised his Hungarian National Council from members of his own Independence Party, the Bourgeois Radical Party, the Social Democratic Party and various circles of intellectuals from the capital. Its twelve-point proclamation called for the immediate conclusion of a separate peace treaty, the independence of Hungary, far-reaching democratic reforms and reconciliation with the nationalities, without harm to the territorial integrity of the state. The National Council functioned as a counter-government in the following week since, contrary to expectations and common sense, Charles IV hesitated in calling on Károlyi to form a government. He preferred Count János Hadik, a follower of the younger Count Andrássy who was popular among MPs hostile to Károlyi. But Hadik had no party, and could only count on the demoralised military to maintain order.

On 28 October, a mass of protesters marched from Pest to Buda Castle, the Monarchy’s palace in the capital, to demand Károlyi’s appointment from Archduke Joseph, the monarch’s representative. Three of them were shot dead by the police. Strikes and further protests followed in the next two days, with occasional clashes between the newly organised Soldiers’ Council and leftist Socialists on the one hand and government units on the other, while Károlyi and the National Council advised moderation and awaited the outcome, even though on 30 October troops were ordered to gain control of their headquarters at the Hotel Astoria in the centre of Pest. The soldiers refused, most of them deserting, carried away by the enthusiasm of the civilians who swarmed onto the streets, cheering the National Council. They captured police buildings, railway stations and telephone exchanges. The traditional flower for All Souls’ Day, 2nd November (more important in Hungary than All Saints’ Day as a time to place fresh flowers on the graves of departed relatives) replaced the insignia torn off from uniforms and appeared in the button-holes of civilian suits, hence the name Aster Revolution, which succeeded on Hallowe’en with the appointment of Károlyi as Premier. Later that afternoon, just before the new government took its oath, István Tisza was murdered by a group of unknown soldiers in his own home, no doubt a symbolic act.

Hungary’s ‘Bourgeois Revolutionary’ Government of November 1918:

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The new government’s programme was virtually the same as the twelve points published a week earlier, and Károlyi’s cabinet was also recruited from the same forces as the National Council, with members of his own party obtaining most of the seats. The crumbling of the whole edifice of the old Monarchy changed Hungary beyond recognition. Paradoxically, however, the dissolution of the historic Kingdom, one of the greatest shocks the country suffered and survived, also created the opportunity for a new beginning. But whereas the collapse of the dualist system cleared important obstacles from the way to democratic transition, the lack of new forms of government was symptomatic of the belatedness of this development, seriously limiting its scope for action. Between them, the parties of the National Council represented a small minority of the aristocracy and lesser nobility, some of the bourgeoisie, diverse circles of the intelligentsia, skilled workers and the trade unions. Missing were the influential haute bourgeoisie, indeed most of the middle classes. The involvement of their highest strata in the war-related business identified them closely with the old régime, and events in Russia turned them off revolution completely, whatever the label. In addition, the truly generous terms offered to the leaders of the Slav and Romanian national parties might have been snapped up in 1914, but the external situation made them almost impossible to achieve in 1918. The attempt to draw them into the Hungarian National Council failed.

Nevertheless, the internal situation in Hungary still held out the promise of overhauling the ossified social and political institutions which bore some responsibility for the disaster of dissolution. It was hoped that a proper, consistently pursued policy towards the minorities, combined with the good relations Károlyi had developed with the Entente powers might Hungary from the consequences of the secret agreements those powers had concluded with the Slavs and Romanians during the war. The first indications in these respects were rather disappointing: the western allies seemed more ready to satisfy their partners in the region, even at the expense of departing from Wilson’s principles, than to reward the political changes in Hungary, and not even full autonomy could keep the Slovaks and the Romanians within ‘historic Hungary’. Croat claims were considered justified by practically everyone in Hungary, and the Serbs did not even consider negotiating over their demands. Wider international developments soon determined that the potential for internal democratic transformation would not materialise. On 3rd-4th November, an Armistice was signed in Padova (Padua) at Villa Giusti between Italy and what was left of Austria-Hungary and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments.

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The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Following the armistice with Italy, the empire took only a week to unravel. Charles IV was forced to abdicate, and the former territories fell apart into seven divisions, with both Austria and Hungary being reduced to the status of minor states. Worse was to follow for Hungary, as the terms of the armistice signed at Padova were not accepted by the commander of the French forces in the Balkans, General d’Esperey, and his forces crossed the Sava into Hungarian territory. Károlyi, hoping that the occupation would only be a temporary measure, was forced to sign, on 13 November in Belgrade, an armistice requiring the withdrawal of the Hungarian army beyond the Drava-Maros line, its severe reduction and the right to free passage for Entente troops across Hungary. What was held by many people to be the failure of the Károlyi government in not averting the greatest national humiliation Hungary had faced since the Ottoman invasion nearly four centuries earlier could do otherwise but prejudice its chances to cope with its domestic difficulties. It undermined the confidence which had previously built up in the ability of the new government to maintain order at home, the tasks it had to cope with were immense.

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Above & below: The election of Mihály Károlyi as President of the Republic on 16 November 1918 and the Proclamation of the Republic. He was ‘leader of the nation’ during the transitional period after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and was inaugurated as President in January 1919.

In the initial hope that the new government would be able to secure Hungary’s old borders as well as law, order and property, the old élite accepted, following the abdication of Charles IV, the dissolution of parliament, the investing of the National Council with provisional legislative authority, and the proclamation of the republic on 16 November. They were also, for a short while, impressed by the relatively little violence which had attended the revolution, especially in the urban centres. But Károlyi had received his very limited power from the Habsburgs, and though elected as President of the Republic on 16 November (though he was not inaugurated until January 1919), his gradual shift to the left in order to enable a democratic, constitutional evolution to take place alienated the ‘old guard’. He embarked upon the social and political reforms announced in his programme, which were badly needed in view of the explosive atmosphere in the country. But he soon proved himself too weak for the post of trusteeship in bankruptcy that he had to fill as head of the nation.

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The simultaneous negotiations of the Minister for Minorities, Oszkár Jászi, with the Romanian leaders at Arad, were also of no avail. On 20 November, the Romanians seceded and by the end of the month, their army had advanced to the demarcation line, and even beyond that, as far as Kolozsvár after the Romanians of Transylvania proclaimed their union with the Kingdom of Romania at a meeting in Gyulafehérvár on 1 December. Then the provisional assembly in Vienna also declared that Austria was an independent state. Although the Slovak leader was inclined to accept autonomy as a provisional solution until the peace treaty was signed, the Czechs would not, and fighting broke out along the Slovak border. The Hungarians received a memorandum from the Entente requiring them to withdraw beyond a line which later became the border between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Ruthenians were the only nationality who, as the unification of all Ukrainian land seemed unlikely at the time, accepted the autonomy offered to them. By the time the Paris peace conference convened on 12 January 1919, Hungary had already lost more than half of the territory and population it had comprised before the war broke out.

Jászi’s idea of the Danubian United States, which he had detailed extensively in a book, was to remain the stuff of dreams. The Károlyi government has been harshly judged and blamed ever since for not resisting, in particular, the ‘land-grabbing’ Romanians, but the armed forces at its disposal would hardly have been a match for the hostile forces ranged against them, backed by the French. More importantly, its legitimacy was based on its supposedly good relations with the Entente powers, so it felt it could ill afford to discard ‘Wilsonianism’, even when they did. The contemporary maps below illustrate the areas, ‘races’, population and economic resources of the partitioned empire. A comparative study of the four sketch-maps reveals the different characteristics of these divisions.

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As winter of 1918-19 set in, the economic blockade by the western Allies was still in force, trading ties with Austria were seriously disrupted, and territories of crucial economic importance in the north, east and south of Hungary were under occupation, leading to shortages of raw materials, fuel which caused chaos in production. Additionally, the most fundamental means of subsistence were unavailable to millions in a country inundated by demobilised soldiers, the continuing stream of returning prisoners of war, and refugees from beyond the demarcation lines. Urban dwellers suspected landowners and smallholding peasants of hoarding grain and holding back deliveries of other agricultural produce; many were leaving their land uncultivated because of impending land reform, which the rural proletariat urged on the government ever more impatiently. There was probably no political force in Hungary at this turbulent time that would have been able to satisfy all of these competing interests and expectations; Károlyi and the democratic politicians around him, whose undoubtedly considerable talents were suited to relatively peaceful and stable conditions but not to national emergencies, were certainly unable to provide such a forceful administration. Even had he not been assassinated, it is unlikely that István Tisza could have done better.

There were already, waiting in the wings on both the left and the right, those who were willing to provide a more authoritarian administration. On the radical Right, there were groups such as the Hungarian National Defence Association, led by Gyula Gömbös and the Association of Awakening Hungarians who impatiently urged the armed defence of the country from November 1918 on. They had their strongest base among the many thousands of demobilised officers and dismissed public servants, many of the latter being refugees from the occupied territories of historic Hungary. In their view, the dissolution of the country was largely the responsibility of the enervated conservative liberalism of the dualist period, which they proposed to transcend by authoritarian government and measures aimed at the redistribution of property in favour of the Christian provincial middle classes at the expense of the, ‘predominantly Jewish’, metropolitan bourgeoisie.

But for the time being the streets belonged more to the political Left. Appeals to workers and soldiers from moderate Social Democratic ministers to patience and order seemed to alienate the disaffected masses. 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. Like many other former prisoners of war, Kun became convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets on the Russian model to that of parliamentary democracy, and communist propaganda also promised international stability arising from the fraternity of Soviet republics whose triumph throughout Europe the Communists saw as inevitable. Within a few weeks of the party’s formation, this attractive utopia and its accompanying populist demagogy earned it a membership of around forty thousand, and several times as many supporters whom they could mobilise, mainly among the urban proletariat and the young intelligentsia susceptible to revolutionary romanticism.

Blunders or Back-Stabbing? – The Collapse of Germany:

Reflecting with the benefit of hindsight, and with greater meaning, in his War Memoirs of 1933, Lloyd George admitted that there had been little cause for the victory celebrations in western Europe:

… It is true that the World War ended, as I still believe, in a victory for Right. But it was won not on the merits of the case, but on a balance of resources and blunders. The reserves of manpower, of material and of money at the command of the victorious Powers were overwhelmingly greater than those possessed by the vanquished. They were thus better able to maintain a prolonged struggle. Both sides blundered badly, but the mistakes committed by the Central Powers were more fatal, inasmuch as they did not possess the necessary resources to recover from their errors of judgement. … The Allied mistake prolonged the War. The German mistake lost them the War.

For their part, in the years following the end of the war many Germans, especially those on the right, came to blame socialists and Jews for ‘stabbing in the back’ the military and, by extension, the Fatherland, and so losing the war. The power and resolve of the Allied offensives and the blunders and exhaustion of the German Army were discounted. The events of the autumn of 1918 were to become shrouded in myth and lies. Many Germans convinced themselves that they had been tricked into signing the armistice by the Allies and that they could have fought on and would certainly have done so had they known of the harshness of the treaty that was to be offered them in 1919. A widespread belief developed in the army that Germany had indeed been stabbed in the back by revolutionaries and strikers. Jews were said to have played a major part in this, a view held by the Kaiser himself, and of course, subsequently propagated by Hitler and the Nazis. It was convenient for many, not least those in the military who had lost their nerve in 1918, to blame the defeat on a nebulous conspiracy of ‘reds’, foreigners and politicians, those who were later popularly described as the November Criminals.

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The truth was that by the end of September 1918, Germany’s military leaders realised that they faced defeat and sought a way to end the war.  They paved the way for the democratisation of the country by handing over power to civilian ministers. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max von Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in negotiations. On 3 October he requested the US President to take in hand the restoration of peace but in the exchange of notes that followed it was clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Ludendorff then changed his mind and wished to fight on, but growing popular unrest showed that the German people were in no mood for this, and neither was the new Government. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 people on one day (15 October) in Berlin, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised them victory and brought defeat. Ludendorff was dismissed and steps were taken to transfer real power to the Reichstag, since Wilson had, in any case, refused to enter into negotiations with “monarchical autocrats”.

By the end of October, a civil war was threatening because the Kaiser was refusing to abdicate, despite the relentless pressure being put upon him. He left Berlin on the 29th for the army headquarters at Spa,  where Hindenburg told him that the army would not support him against the people. On the same day mutiny broke out in the navy, the sailors refusing the order to put to sea. By 4 November the mutiny was general, with Kiel falling into the hands of the mutineers. On the same day, the Austro-Hungarian Armistice with Italy exposed Bavaria to attack. A few days later the mutineers had occupied the main cities of north-west Germany, and insurrection had also broken out in Munich. On 7 November, the German civilian delegates passed through the Allied lines to receive the Armistice terms drawn up by the Allied commanders. On 9 November, revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was appointed Chancellor and a republic was declared from the steps of the Reichstag. The armistice terms imposed by the Allies on 11 November were severe and left Germany prostrate. It surrendered its guns and fleet and withdrew its armies from conquered territories. The German Government accepted the terms because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which President Wilson had set out in his Fourteen Points should form the basis of the peace settlement which was to follow. By the end of November 1918, Germany had been transformed into a democratic republic, led by the largest political movement in Germany, the Social Democratic Party.

Certainly, the First World War had created the conditions that shaped the later development and ambitions of Hitler’s ‘Reich’. The conflict generated a great deal of physical hardship on the home front with severe shortages of food and steadily deteriorating social conditions. By the end of the war, four years of privation had created a widespread hostility which erupted at the end of the war in a wave of revolutionary violence. Organised labour did better than other groups because of shortages of men for the arms factories, but this exacerbated tensions between and within classes. Many associated the new republic with national humiliation and the downfall of the monarchy. Neither the traditional social forces who lost out in 1918 nor the forces of the populist-nationalist right liked the new government, which they identified with the triumph of communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The political transition in 1918-19 created a sharp polarisation in German society which existed down to 1933, but it was not responsible for the military blunders which had led to Germany’s defeat, nor was it responsible for the opening of negotiations leading to an armistice. The military leadership under Ludendorff had already effectively surrendered, allowing the Allies to dictate terms.

The First World War also ended Germany’s long period of economic and trade growth and her pretensions to great power status. German defeat in 1918 left the economy with a war debt far beyond anything the government could afford to repay. This was before the victorious allies seized German economic resources and presented Germany with a bill for 132 billion gold marks as the final schedule of reparation payment, which it would take until 2010 for them to finally clear. Most importantly, the ‘Coupon Election’ was to weaken the authority of Britain in the upcoming Paris Peace Conference in such a way as to undermine Lloyd George’s instinct to treat Germany as an important trading partner which needed to be able to rebuild its economy. The British delegation alone among the European victors could exercise a moderating and healing influence, both from the authority which the War had given her and from her detachment from old European jealousies. But the Prime Minister would go to these councils bound by the extravagant election pledges he had made in 1918 in which he had promised to demand penalties from ‘the enemy’; whatever words of conciliation he might speak would be obscured by ugly echoes of the election campaign – his mandate was to ‘Make Germany Pay’.

This should have been the moment, then, at the end of 1918, when the conditions which had produced the bloody battles, blunders, and massacres of 1914-18 had to be finally removed, and for good. Europe could not simply be left to blunder out of the mud and blood as it had blundered in, in H. G. Wells’ phrase. Preposterous empires and monarchs, as well as tribal churches and territories,  had to be done away with. Instead, there would be created a League of Free Nations along the lines proposed by Wilson in his Fourteen Points which were to form the basis for the Paris peace negotiations which began the following January. This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by the disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history. Otherwise, the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. But the idealists who advocated this new form of peacebuilding were to be bitterly disappointed by the vindictiveness of the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed the blame and cost of the war on Germany, and the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered central Europe in the name of the ideal of ‘self-determination’, while in reality rewarding land-grabbing nationalists and punishing the Hungarians for joining a war they did not start.

Sources:

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

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

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

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson, J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

 

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

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in 1918 – Winter into Spring.   Leave a comment

Soldier-Poets, Philosophers,Treaties and Retreats:

We must strike at the earliest moment… before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British.

General Erich Ludendorff, November 1917.

The following letter appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 14 January 1918:

Sir,

Might I suggest that you would be doing a public service if you could induce the authorities to relieve the peaceful inhabitants of the city from the diurnal shock of the One O’clock Castle Gun? At the present time it is all the more an intrusion in that there are so many convalescent soldiers within range of the concussion. Two of these from Craiglockhart, suffering from shell shock, had to be carried home from Princes Street the other day after the shot was fired. We abolish police whistles in the vicinity of hospitals, why keep up this more violent reminder of their sufferings?

I am, etc, Citizen.

Shell-shock was the common name given to a range of emotional and mental disorders suffered by troops. The symptoms included hysteria, anxiety, physical tremors, sensitivity to noise, and nightmares. Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital treated soldiers suffering from shell shock; it was where Siegfried Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and encouraged him in his writing of poetry. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon wrote or completed the poems that were to be published in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it.  Sassoon also directed his indignation against the old and the rich who were making a handsome profit out of the war and who did not share the young soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet had the effrontery to conceal their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving. In Blighters, he aims his anger at the vulgar jingoism of a music-hall show and the shallow applause of the civilian audience:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin

And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks

Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;

‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

 

I’d like to see a Tanks come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes or ‘Home, sweet Home’,

And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

In certain of his poems Owen imitates Sassoon’s irony; for instance, in ‘The Dead-Beat’, he tells how a soldier suddenly drops unconscious and is taken to casualty clearing-station. The stretcher-bearers label him a ‘malingerer’, but the poem ends with Owen mockingly mimicking anyone who talks callously about another’s death:

Next day I heard the Doc’s well-whiskied laugh:

‘That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!’

Another special target for satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. Sassoon’s poem, They, satirises the Bishop who is delighted with the way in which war ennobles soldiers:

We’re none of us the same’, the boys reply.

‘For George lost both his legs, and Bill’s stone-blind;

‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die…’

In At a Calvary near the Ancre Owen also attacks the military chaplains:

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom thegentle Christ’s denied.

Owen, who as a patient at Craiglockhart had seen Sassoon’s angriest poems before they were published, is here imitating Sassoon’s mood and techniques. He also condemns the old when in The Parable of the Old Men and the Young he envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Despite their anger, both men returned to the western front to be with their men within a few months of writing these lines. The firing of ‘Mons Meg’ at Edinburgh Castle at one o’clock, an age-old tradition, was halted in April 1918 and it remained silent for over a year.

 

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With the coming of 1918, the initiative passed to Germany. For three years every attempt to decide the issue on the western front had proved a costly failure, but in 1918 Ludendorff decided to risk his entire reserves in a final effort to break the Allied line. The collapse of Russia enabled them to put larger forces on the front than the Allies could muster. They had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the USA could send her armies; it was Germany’s purpose before that date to reach a decision in the field. It was their last chance. The submarine had failed; Britain could not be starved into submission. On the contrary, the Allied blockade was undermining the health and morale of the German people. They were weak with privations and sick with hope deferred. A little longer and their wonderful fortitude would break. With all the strength they could muster, with their new tactics to aid them, and with a desperate necessity to goad them, they undertook the last great sally, staking everything on victory. Germany’s allies were giving way under the strain of prolonged war: the Turkish armies were in retreat; the Bulgarians, having already got all they wanted, were anxious for peace; the subject peoples of the Austrian Empire naturally faced privations with less fortitude than the Germans. It was ‘now or never’; the American troops were not yet in the field, but would be very shortly.

Ludendorff’s general plan was to isolate the British Army, roll it up from its right, and drive it into the sea, or pin it down to an entrenched camp between the Somme and the Channel – a ‘Torres Vedras’ from which it would only on the signature of peace. This done, he could hold it with a few troops, swing around on the French, and put them out of action. He must, therefore, strike with all his might at the point of junction of Haig and Pétain, on the western face of the great salient, where the Allies were weakest and the ground easiest. His position on interior lines gave him the chance of surprise, for until the actual attack the Allies would not know on which side of the salient the blow was to fall. His admirable communications would enable him to obtain a great local predominance. For the first stage of the great battle, he had sixty-three divisions in line or in immediate reserve.

The Versailles Council, formed by the Entente towards the end of 1917, miscalculated both the place and the date of the attack. Haig’s Intelligence service informed him of the exact hour, but he had neither the time nor the resources to prepare an adequate defence. He held 130 miles of line, and these were the most critical in the West, with approximately the same numbers as he had had two years before when his front was only eighty miles long and Russia was still in the fold. An initial German success was almost inevitable. Nineteen divisions in line and thirteen in reserve could scarcely stand against a first attacking wave of thirty-seven divisions, which was soon to grow to sixty-three.

Meanwhile, back at home, the historian and philosopher Bertrand Russell was jailed for six months in February for writing an article criticising the US Army. His action was described by the judge as being ‘a very despicable offence’ and in contravention of the Defence of the Realm Act, as it was likely ‘to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with the USA’. Also in February, William MacCaw MP was found guilty of hoarding foodstuffs (listed below). For this contravention of the 1917 Food Hoarding Order he was fined four hundred pounds:

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During the build-up of Germany’s forces on the western front, it also consolidated the territory it had gained in the east as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and actually occupied considerably more Russian territory than they were entitled to by the treaty. Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War after the Bolshevik takeover was formalised by the settlement between Lenin’s Russia and Germany and her allies on 3 March 1918 at Brest-Litovsk. The treaty, deeply unfavourable to Russia, revealed the in part the Europe Berlin hoped would be the outcome of the war. Russia lost all of its western provinces: Finland, the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine (as well as Georgia under the Treaty of Berlin of August 1918).

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They took Belorussia simply to shorten their line, but in the Black Sea region, where they advanced to the lower Don and crossed from the Crimea to the Taman Peninsula, they were clearly aiming at taking over permanently. In due course, they would doubtless have imposed a third round of concessions on the Revolutionary Russian government. Bolshevik power in this area was at a very low ebb. The Don Cossacks were refusing to accept the authority of Moscow, which became the seat of government in March when Lenin decided that the Germans were getting too close to Petrograd. Anti-Bolshevik forces rallying to the white flag of General Denikin were proving more than a match for the local Bolsheviks. In Caucasia, in the far south, the Turks had occupied not only the town they had lost in 1878, which they were entitled to as a result of Brest-Litovsk but everything else that wasn’t already in the hands of their German allies.

The Romanians also badly needed some compensation. After the completion of the initial Brest-Litovsk negotiations in March, it was their turn to sign on the dotted line. When they eventually did so (in May), they lost the southern half of Dobruja to the Bulgarians and the northern half to the Germans (another area to be included in the Black Sea Province) besides having to make major frontier adjustments in favour of Austria-Hungary. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had brought the war in the east to a successful conclusion, they now had to try to do the same in the west.

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They had until the summer to do so, before the Americans appeared in France in strength. For the moment, after the transfer of the eastern armies to the west, the German Army had superiority: 192 divisions facing 165 Allied divisions on the Western Front, but this would not last long. The critical blows would have to be struck during March and April, a Spring Offensive, of which ‘Operation Michael’ was the first part. It eventually became known as the Second Battle of the Somme, which continued until 5th April. It wasn’t just a case of overall numerical superiority; Ludendorff also had seventy specially trained ‘assault divisions’ facing just thirty-five similar British units on the Somme battlefront.

This most perilous stage for the British Army – and, except for the First Marne, the most perilous for the Allied cause – opened in the fog of the early morning of 21st March, when at a quarter to five four thousand German guns were released against the British front, firing more than a million shells over the following five hours, while all the back areas were drenched with gas, which hung like a pall in the moist air. When the guns crashed out and the attack went in, the British line simply disintegrated: whole battalions vanished, never to be heard of again. Reinforced with half a million troops from the Eastern Front, the German Infantry made strong breakthroughs using airpower and shock troops to bypass defensive positions in foggy conditions that hampered the defenders. By the end of the first day, twenty-one thousand prisoners were taken as the Germans overran the British positions. Lieutenant Ernst Jünger of the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment commented; We had but no doubt that the great plan would succeed. 

The narrative of the Somme retreat, however, was a tale of confused operations, improvised plans, chances, mischances, and incredible heroism. On the first day, a fifty-mile gap had opened in the Allied line, forty miles of the British line were submerged, and, in a week, forty miles off, the enemy tide was lapping the walls of Amiens. In the face of the German advance, General Carey was given the task of organising a last-ditch defensive unit to be positioned at Hamel, to protect Amiens. As well as infantry stragglers, ‘Carey’s Force’ was composed of an assorted collection of 3,500 soldiers, including kitchen staff and storemen, most of whom were not well versed in infantry tactics. ‘The Péronne Handicap’ was the name given to the ‘race’ by the 17th Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, in their bid to reach the French town before being caught by pursuing German forces. Forty-six out of the British Expeditionary Force’s fifty-six divisions took part in the battle.

Within the first week, the leading German formations had advanced forty miles, a penetration ten times better than anything the Allies had ever achieved. The attack had broken the British Fifth Army and nearly severed the British communications link with the French. German schools were closed to allow celebrations but they were premature. The advance was magnificent, but it was not enough. Allied reinforcements were rushed in while rushed in while hungry German troops slowed, gorging on appropriated food and drink. After a fortnight, the impetus had gone out of the attack and German losses were beginning to exceed Allied casualties. In their advance, the Germans had outstretched their supply lines and losses of over a quarter of a million men couldn’t be sustained, so the offensive was halted and closed down.  The Germans sent forward large Krupp cannons, capable of long-range firing, their shells able to hit Paris from a distance of seventy-five miles. The huge shells were in the air for three and a half minutes. The French capital was hit by 183 of them, which killed over 250 Parisians.

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Ludendorff achieved much, but he did not achieve his main purpose. By 5th April, though, the main battle had died down, Amiens had not been taken, the front had been restored, and the French were not separated from the British. The ultimate failure was due to many factors; Ludendorff was false to the spirit of his own tactics and, instead of exploiting a weakness when he found it, wasted his strength on the steadfast bastion of Arras; half-way through he fumbled, forgot his true aim, and became a hasty improviser.

Perhaps Ludendorff sought to achieve the impossible, for his troops outmarched their supplies and their stamina, and, accustomed to short commons, lost discipline often when they found Allied stores to plunder. Yet he won a notable victory, and, to the ultimate advantage of the Allies, was encouraged to continue, for, had his blow been parried at the outset, he might have relapsed on the defensive, and thereby protracted the war. For his role in the success, commander Paul von Hindenburg was awarded the ‘Iron Cross with Golden Rays’, the highest medal of honour available. The only previous recipient was the Prussian Field Marshal von Blücher, honoured for his part in defeating Napoleon in 1815 at Waterloo.

For its part, the British Army had written a shining page in its history, for a retreat may be as glorious as an advance. By the end of March seventy-three German divisions had engaged thirty-seven British. The disparity was, in reality, far greater than two to one, owing to the German power of local concentration, in many parts of the field the numbers had been three-to-one. Added to this, after the second day, the British had no prepared lines on which to retire, and the rivers parallel to their front were useless from the drought. It was a marvel, war correspondent John Buchan noted, that our gossamer front wavered and blew in the wind but never wholly disappeared. He went on:

Again and again complete disaster was miraculously averted. Scratch forces held up storm troops; cavalry did work that no cavalry had ever done in the history of war; gunners broke every rule of the textbooks. The retreat was in flat defiance of all precedent and law, and it succeeded only because of the stubborn value of the British soldier.

The moment was too solemn for half-measures. A divided command could not defend the long, lean front of the Allies against Germany’s organised might, directed by a single brain towards a single purpose, one strong hand only must be on the helm. On 23rd March, General Haig, after seeing Pétain, telegraphed to London for the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At the request of Lloyd George, Lord Milner also crossed the Channel on the 24th, and on the 26th he and Sir Henry Wilson met Clemenceau and Poincaré, Haig, Foch and Pétain at Doullens. This conference, held amid the backwash of ‘the great retreat’, was, in a sense, the turning point of the war. The proposal for a supreme commander-in-chief, urged by Milner and supported by Clemenceau, was accepted and Pétain and welcomed by Haig, and for the post, Foch was chosen unanimously. The Allies in their extremity turned with one accord to the slight, grizzled, deep-eyed man of sixty-six, who during a life of labour had made himself into a master of warfare.

The ordeal of the Second Battle of the Somme was the source of other blessings, though some of them were somewhat mixed. The renowned Australian Corps had come under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson in early 1918. He was pleased, if bemused by the troops, as he wrote in his diary:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

The US increased its recruiting and strained every nerve to quicken the dispatch of troops, so that it might soon stand in line with the Allies. Lloyd George and Clemenceau appealed to President Wilson and their appeal was generously met. General Pershing postponed his plan of a separate American section of operations and offered Foch every man, gun and lorry which they had in Europe. France was showing that quiet and stoic resolution to win or perish which two years before had inspired her troops at Verdun. In Britain, the threat of industrial strikes disappeared and of their own accord the workers gave up their Easter holiday in order to make up by an increased output for lost guns and stores.

Nonetheless, when King George visited his armies in France in the last days of March, the situation was still on a razor’s edge. He had gone there for a week during the flood-tide of the first Battle of the Somme and again, accompanied by the Queen, on the eve of Passchendaele. Now he went to them in the throes of their sternest trial. He saw remnants of battalions which had been through the retreat, and he saw units which in a week or two were to be engaged in the no less desperate Battle of the Lys. Already his armies had lost more men in the German offensive than in the whole thirty-four week Dardanelles campaign. His appeal to his troops now was to “take counsel from the valour of their hearts”, an appeal which, two weeks later, Haig put into his own grave and memorable words.

In the meantime, divisions were being transferred from Palestine and Salonica to France and the old precautions against invasion were dropped. On 10th April, the House of Commons had passed a Bill raising the limit of the military age to fifty, and giving the Government power to abolish the ordinary exemptions. These mobilisations meant that within a month from 21st March, 355,000 extra men were sent across the Channel.

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However, few of these reinforcements arrived in time to soften Ludendorff’s second blow, which came on 1st April. Originally designed as a mere diversion, Operation Georgette, it grew by its startling success into a major effort, the Battle of the Lys, and thereby further compromised his main strategy. His aim was to drive for Ypres, pushing through between La Bassée and Armentiéres and then, pressing north-west, to capture Hazelbrouck and the hills beyond Bailleul. This would, he hoped, result in a British retirement and a direct threat to Calais and Boulogne, eating up the Allied reserves. That it achieved, but it also ate up his own reserves.

Depleted British units which had been involved in the great retreat across the Somme of the previous month were now stationed on what was known as a ‘quiet sector’. Portuguese troops were also in the line here, but were under strength and lacking motivation; a third became casualties as the Germans broke through. In three days they had advanced eleven miles,  and Allied troops were moved in hastily to stem the tide. For a week or more he met stern resistance from the British, against all the odds, in what became known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres (9-29 April). Haig’s patience was sorely tried by Foch’s delay in sending help, but on 11th April, with the Allies under severe threat by the onslaught, Haig issued his famous order:

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike on the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment. 

The British front sagged and bent, but held, and by the end of April Ludendorff realised that he must try elsewhere, and called off the offensive at the end of the month. His second blow had proved yet another tactical success, but a strategic failure. He was now becoming desperate; his original strategic scheme had gone, and his remaining efforts were now in the nature of a gambler’s throw. The Fourth Battle of Ypres also became known for the first combat between two tanks, or ‘armed tortoises’ as they were first described by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell of the British Tank Corps. Three British Mark IV’s faced three German A7Vs. The British were the victors in this first historic engagement, which took place on 24 April at Villers-Bretonneux. Overall, the April attack had forced the Allies to abandon all the territory they had so dearly bought in the Passchendaele campaign and, for a while, had seriously threatened the Channel ports.

 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

András Bereznay (2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.

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

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Irene Richards (1937), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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