Tony Blair, the ‘Beeb’ & the ‘Blob’: The BBC & the Iraq War – Twenty Years Ago; Invasion & Insurgency, 2002-2005.

The Business of Informing & Educating:
John Simpson in his fortieth year of reporting for the BBC from war zones in 2006.

In 2007, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson wrote the following about the nature of the British Broadcasting Corporation, at a time of great controversy about its role among politicians, this time of the ‘New’ Labour variety. He called for what he called a return to ‘Reithianism’, a term coined from the name of its founder, which he defined as the business of informing and educating people as well as entertaining them. In the tradition of George Orwell, who worked at the BBC throughout the 1940s, Simpson thought it should be telling audiences what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear. Maybe, he mused, though audience figures would drop even further than they had already, but at least they would know that what they reported was correct, rather than turning themselves into another branch of entertainment:

If the BBC became a little more Reithian, and a little less inclined to chase audience numbers for their own sake, and made a virtue of what it was doing, it might weaken its position in the ratings but I think it would strengthen its moral position immensely.

John Simpson (2007), Not Quite the World’s End, p. 24.

Tony Blair at the beginning of his second term in office in 2002.

Simpson went on to claim that every single government in his forty years as a BBC reporter and news presenter had attacked it and threatened it, but the danger always faded or was seen off. At the height of her power in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher used some virulent language about the BBC and frequently encouraged the idea that it might have to be privatised. Still, she never thought seriously about carrying out her threat. By contrast, Tony Blair began a process which seemed likely to destroy the BBC as the world’s most powerful, independent broadcaster, and one of Britain’s principal world-class brands. Blair understood that the key to the Corporation’s strength was the licence fee that funds it, and he allowed a process to commence that put the BBC’s future licence-fee income in doubt.

Blair’s predecessors as Labour leaders: Neil Kinnock and John Smith. Both had a hard time with the media.

In the eighties and early nineties, Labour had been savaged by much of the press, then still at the height of its power. Neil Kinnock had had a terrible time. When Blair became leader, the people immediately around Kinnock at the time, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, remembered it well. Campbell had worked for the Daily Mirror in the most cynical end of the newspaper market and came away thinking that most journalists were idle liars, as well as biased against Labour. He was ‘tribal’ and assumed that the rest of the world was too. Mandelson, with a background in television, was a master of image, ‘spin’ and later of the ‘killer briefing’. So it is hardly surprising that New Labour became the most media-obsessed political party in British history. Under their tutelage, Blair opened out to Labour’s traditional enemies in the press after becoming party leader and exploited the ‘sleaze’ around John Major’s government to eventually destroy the Conservative PM’s reputation. On the way to winning power, New Labour turned itself into what Andrew Marr has described as …

a kind of perpetual media news desk, with a plan for what every day, and an endless ‘grid’ of announcements, images, soundbites and rebuttals, constantly pressing down on journalists, their editors and owners, fighting for every adjective and exclamation mark.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain, p. 568.

Alastair Campbell guards his master’s back. New Labour was famously image-obsessed.

The same way of thinking, Marr argues, was brought into power and eventually did terrible damage to the New Labour government’s reputation, and that of politics in general. Bizarrely, it was assumed that rival newspaper groups with different views about say, law and order, could be kept friendly by Blair telling them what they wanted to hear – even though they would later confer. The attempted bullying of journalists, which became scandalous in the run-up to the Iraq War, was met with increasing resistance. Number Ten’s news machine began to be widely disbelieved. The word ‘spin’ was attached to almost everything it said. At election time, statistics were twisted even beyond the normal elastic rules of political debate. There was a downward spiral. Journalists grew more aggressive in their assertions and began consigning the (disbelieved) official denials to the final paragraph of their stories. Some ministers drew the conclusion that the press was so hostile it was legitimate to use any trick or form of words to mislead them. Others claimed that their words were twisted and used against them every time they were direct. Before long a government which had arrived in office supported by almost all the national papers was being attacked daily by almost all of them. They were also selling fewer copies.

Britain’s political parties always supported the BBC when they were in opposition because they knew that it was their best chance of getting their views across to the voters. But when they got into power, they changed, regarding the BBC with suspicion, as the voice of opposition and hostility. Recently, it has become designated as a primary part of ‘the blob’, the means by which the government is frustrated by ‘the Beeb’s’ unaccountable failure, along with other ‘liberal’ media, including (more recently) bloggers and tweeters, to act as its mouthpiece. Few prime ministers had done as much damage to the BBC as Tony Blair and his head of communications, Alastair Campbell. It later became clear that the evidence that Tony Blair presented to parliament in 2002 about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was exaggerated and misleading.

Blair’s biographer, Anthony Seldon, has emphasised how worried Blair was about Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction long before Bush became President and decided to launch his war against terror after 9/11. This was not simply something that Blair worried about privately; he spoke about it repeatedly. He was particularly fearful of a nuclear-enhanced ‘dirty bomb’ being used, by Iraqi-supported terrorists. Saddam’s henchmen had been operative in the UK since the late seventies and these earlier experiences of Saddam, from the Iran-Iraq War onwards, together with those of other dictators like the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic, and to a lesser extent Mullah Omar of the Taliban, meant that for Blair foreign affairs were personal, as shown in his relationships with both George W. Bush and, at that early stage, with Vladimir Putin. By focusing so much on Saddam as a man of evil, and the moral case of dealing with him, he did not focus enough on the complexities of Iraq as a country.

In Bush’s State of the Union Address for 2002, he had listed Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’, sending shivers across diplomatic Europe. Attempts by US intelligence to prove a link between the secularist Saddam and the fundamentalist al Qaeda failed but this hardly halted the process of lining up Iraq as next for the Bush ‘project’. Blair’s promises to Arab leaders about proof had no purchase in Washington, where many of the neo-conservatives around the President believed that by toppling Saddam they would be bringing an age of democracy and prosperity to the Middle East, solving the Palestinian problem along the way. But the dominant group around Bush were not keen on grand visions. They believed first and second in toppling Saddam and did not believe in waiting for, or depending upon, other countries, even Britain. After 9/11 this was America’s war and they did not believe in UN inspectors or promises from Baghdad. Above all the hopes of a more intellectual approach from the Bush administration and the British Foreign Office for a detailed plan for the reconstruction of post-war Iraq were dashed by the hawks, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld. ‘Régime change’ remained the sole, key objective and it did not involve commitments to reconstruction by western democratic missionaries.

‘Dodgy Dossiers’ & Washington ‘Hawks’:

As early as April 2002, Tony Blair knew that George W. Bush intended to attack Iraq, and he spent much of the rest of the year arguing that Bush should go through the United Nations. Without this, according to British interpretations of international law, an invasion would be illegal. The UN would also give a last chance for Saddam to disarm. Keeping the international community together would also make it easier to rebuild Iraq afterwards. He also wanted the US President to commit to the Middle East peace process. At Camp David on 7 September, Blair finally got Bush to promise to go via the UN in return for Blair’s promise that Britain would fight alongside the US if that route failed. When Bush publicly confirmed his willingness to try for a UN resolution, Blair was delighted, but he was also locked into going to war. Although he had won a battle with the Washington hawks over UN backing, he had not persuaded anyone to take the post-war situation seriously. This, for many of us who thought Saddam had to be removed, not least for the sake of minorities in the country, both ethnic and religious, presented a stumbling block. We could not be assured of one of the pillars of a ‘just war’, that the last state would be better than the first.

Soon after, the second pillar was removed. Most seriously, to Blair’s chagrin and amazement, the US and UK were eventually unable to get the extra, crucial UN resolution they both wanted and Blair needed. The UN route helped keep the number of Labour rebels in the House of Commons to fifty-six. In Whitehall and the Foreign Office and many ministers were growing worried about where Blair was leading them. Outside, the anti-war ‘coalition’ was mobilising. To try to win public opinion around, Blair turned to a technique he had used ahead of Operation Desert Fox, the publication of a dossier of evidence proving the case for military action. Then, in October 1998, Britain and the USA decided to smash Iraq’s military establishment with missiles and bombing raids, but the Iraqi leader decided to back down at the last minute and the raids were postponed. The US soon decided that this was another trick, however, and in December Allied planes attacked, hitting 250 targets over four days. But Desert Fox probably only delayed Saddam’s weapons programmes by a year or so although it was sold at the time as a huge success, which enabled the Allies to operate without a fresh UN mandate. Also, on this occasion, Blair faced little trouble in parliament or outside it.

Both the content and the context of the 2002-03 dossier, though, were quite different, since the US Administration’s case against Saddam was that he was a bad guy who represented a clear and present danger to the security of the USA, and who, in the context of the war on terror had to be removed from power. But the case at the UN was that he was failing to cooperate fully with weapons inspectors, still hiding stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), particularly chemical and biological weapons. To win around British opinion, the dossier would have to prove that they (still) existed and were directly threatening Britain. Thus Blair based laid the central case for war not on the moral cause of removing a regional tyrant, but on narrow and unproven assertions about the contents of the tyrant’s arsenal.

Blair’s team had already enjoyed some success in feeding journalists bloodcurdling lines about the damage Saddam might wreak. There was evidence that he had used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and there is no doubt that senior intelligence and defence people believed he had WMD but was cleverly hiding them, and that he was trying to get hold of nuclear weapons. The trouble was that Saddam’s régime of terror was so effective that there were very few sources of information from inside Iraq. MI6 found any such sources unreliable in any case, often dissidents who were determined to bring forward a war against the Ba’athist régime. Satellite technology, though used by Colin Powell at the UN, was unsatisfactorily unclear. Thus the dossier had to be drawn from a variety of sources and channelled through the Joint Intelligence Committee, which reported directly to the prime minister. Different texts were batted to and fro through Downing Street, as officials questioned parts of it and wondered whether it was sufficiently convincing. Suspicions were also raised following the publication of a second dossier in February 2003 which was later dubbed ‘the dodgy dossier’ and proved to have been lifted directly from a PhD thesis found on the Internet, without attribution.

Whatever the final truth about the shaping of the 2002-03 dossier(s), something strange had happened. Suspicions had been hardened, assertions sharpened, doubts trimmed out and belief converted into proof. Nobody knew for sure what Saddam had (that was the point of the UN inspection process), but when it was published the dossier gave the impression that he had multiple weapons of mass destruction which could be ready for use within forty-five minutes and threatened, among other nearby places, British bases in Cyprus. The forty-five-minute claim turned out to refer to short-range battlefield chemical weapons which could not reach countries other than Iraq’s immediate neighbours. When Iraq was finally invaded, and exhaustive searches conducted everywhere, the WMD were not found and subsequently never materialised.

The most infamous confrontation between New Labour and the media was not with any of the press, but with the BBC. One of the domestic consequences of the Iraq War was the worst falling out between the BBC and the government since the Suez Crisis. At issue was whether or not officials in Number Ten had ‘sexed up’ the dossier about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. The dossier blended two cultures, the cautious, secretive, nuanced culture of intelligence gathering for internal government purposes, and the spin doctors’ culture of opinion-forming, in this case, to win more of the public over to back a coming war. But the cultures did not mix but rather curdled. At seven minutes after six one morning at the end of May 2003, Radio Four’s Today programme broadcast an interview between John Humphrys and its defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan. He alleged that Downing Street had ‘sexed up’ the dossier beyond what intelligence sources thought was reasonable, particularly in saying that WMD could be ready within forty-five minutes. Campbell quickly and unequivocally denied the truth of Gilligan’s assertion and demanded an apology. Gilligan then went further, in an article for a newspaper in which he named Campbell.

The US-UK Coalition, Stop the War & ‘Shock & Awe’:
Anti-war protesters became a familiar sight on the streets of Britain.

A tense struggle at the UN ensued, led by British diplomats, which produced Resolution 1441, declaring that Saddam was in material breach of his obligation to demonstrate that he had no banned weaponry, and giving him a last opportunity to comply or face serious consequences. The Iraqi leader fudged and dodged, letting inspectors back into his country without offering a full declaration of his weapons. For the Americans, this was the trigger for war. For other countries, most notably France, it merely meant that there should be another discussion at the UN Security Council about what collective action to take. In February 2003, as British and US forces were poised to attack Iraq from the south, there was a vast Stop the War march through London. It was the biggest demonstration in the capital since the Chartists’ gathering of 1848. Tony Blair and his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who had swallowed private doubts and resolved to support his boss, were fighting to get a second UN resolution that would give full legal cover for the attack. This was something Blair had been repeatedly told that he needed to be sure of holding his party together and thereby staying in power.

But President Chirac of France was angry at the behaviour of Washington’s hawks and worried about the impact of the war on the Islamic world. He said that France would not support a second resolution, and it collapsed. As the previous Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook had been deeply involved in Operation Desert Fox and Kosovo. Still, he now warned the cabinet that without a second resolution, he could not support this third war in six years. He duly resigned his seat. In the Commons, Cook (also a former leader of the House) then gave one of the most eloquent speeches heard in the chamber in modern times, in which he said:

“The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner – not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council. …

“Ironically, it is only because Iraq’s military forces are so weak that that we can even contemplate its invasion. We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat. …

” On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain.”

Quoted by Andrew Marr (2007-09), A History of Modern Britain, p.566.

Almost uniquely, and against its hallowed conventions, Robin Cook was loudly applauded as he sat down. However, even as the clapping died down, Blair determined to press ahead. He was given legal cover from his attorney general for the war, though it was hardly clear-cut and undisputed. He had given his word to President Bush, who had even offered him the chance to pull out and send British troops in, after the invasion, as peacekeepers. Blair turned the offer down as he felt it would be dishonourable of him to withdraw, and bad for military morale. He had staked his reputation on the war and felt that if he could not carry his party, he was finished as its leader and as PM. In and around Westminster, a political and media struggle began to win around doubters, emphasising Saddam’s brutality and abuse of human rights.

This brutal campaign of terror and torture had been taking place since the mid-1970s, of course, and we had been well aware of this as student leaders in Wales due to the attacks on Iraqi dissident refugees who, as students in Cardiff and Swansea, were regularly beaten up on the streets by Ba’athist thugs, masquerading as fellow students. had supported our NUS Wales campaign in 1979-80, at a time when the university authorities refused to get involved in what they characterised as an ‘internecine’ conflict. The London courts were also unwilling to attribute blame when cases came before them, even though the police reports showed quite clearly who the perpetrators of the street violence were. Ann Clwyd MP, as a Guardian correspondent, had been among the first UK journalists to expose the tyranny of the Ba’athist Party in Iraq and the crimes of Saddam’s henchmen. Now, in the debate in the House of Commons in March 2003, she made a particularly influential speech about Saddam’s treatment of the Kurds which included the use of torture.

But this was not the primary purpose for going to war. Others spoke and voted in favour of military action because, on balance, they chose to trust their leader’s judgement about the likely existence of WMD in Saddam’s arsenal. My former Cardiff University research colleague, Wayne David MP, spoke in favour of the proposal on this basis. Eventually, after days of drama and one of his finest Commons performances, Blair won a majority among his own MPs, though 139 rebelled, almost half of them. The Conservatives added to his margin of victory, and with that vote, the final obstacle to war was removed.

The war began with a thunderous attack on Baghdad on 20 March, described with brutal clarity in Washington as “Shock and Awe”. An early attempt by Saddam’s information minister to assassinate the dictator failed. For the first few weeks, calm declarations of great victories being won in the desert by the Iraqi armed forces were broadcast almost nightly. In fact, it was only the sandstorms that delayed the Allied advance. In Baghdad, a coalition bomb killed fifty-seven people in a marketplace and in Britain anger about the war grew. Yet, while not quite the walk-over the Pentagon had hoped, the invasion was over very quickly.

By 7 April, British forces had taken Basra, having surrounded it long before, and two days later the Americans were in Baghdad, first seizing the international airport and then Saddam’s favourite palace, though they didn’t find him anywhere inside. Soon, his statues were being jubilantly torn down. Before the invasion, there had been speculation about Baghdad fighting to the last, surrounded by trenches of burning oil, tank regiments and possibly artillery with chemical shells – an Arab Götterdämmerung on the banks of the Tigris. By those standards, the war had been a great, one-sided military success. The war beyond the invasion and occupation would be something else entirely.

The war between Broadcasting House & Number Ten:

On 20 March, as Iraq burned, Number Ten and the BBC began a war of their own. In general, battles between journalists and politicians do not usually spill blood. There may be resignations and bitterness, but when the smoke clears, everyone gets up again and goes back to work. When Campbell widened his criticism of the BBC to attack it for having an anti-war agenda, he had no idea quite what he was setting off. Yet there was a certain recklessness in his mood. He confided in his diary that he wanted to ‘fuck Gilligan’ and wanted a ‘clear win’ against ‘the Corporation’. On the BBC side, it would turn out that Gilligan had been loose with his words, claiming rather more than he knew for sure; nor was he entirely frank with his colleagues. The BBC’s Director General, Greg Dyke, who had been hounded in the press as a Blair crony, was ferociously robust in defending the corporation against Campbell and was strongly supported by his Chairman, Gavyn Davies, whose wife was Gordon Brown’s senior aide. He too was determined to demonstrate the BBC’s independence.

By 2005 neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown could be bothered to disguise their mutual enmity.

Neither side gave way until eventually it was revealed that a government scientist with a high reputation as an arms inspector, Dr David Kelly, was probably the source of Gilligan’s information. Downing Street did not name him but allowed journalists to keep throwing names at them until they confirmed who he was. Because he was not directly involved in the joint intelligence committee or its work, ‘outing’ Kelly as the secret mole would, in the government’s eyes, discredit the BBC story. Suddenly thrown into the cauldron of a media row, Kelly himself was evasive when aggressively questioned by a committee of MPs. Visibly nervous, he denied that he could have been Gilligan’s informant. Yet he was. A fastidious, serious-minded man who had supported the toppling of Saddam and had served his country honourably as a weapons inspector, Kelly finally cracked under the strain. Andrew Marr has described, sympathetically, the subsequent events:

On a quiet July morning in 2003 he walked five miles to the edge of a wood near his Oxfordshire home where he took painkillers, opened a pen-knife, and killed himself. This media battle had drawn blood in the most awful way. Blair, arriving in Tokyo after triumphantly addressing both houses of Congress about the fall of Saddam, was asked: “Prime Minister, do you have blood on your hands?”

Marr, op. cit., p. 571.

Back home from Tokyo, Tony Blair ordered an inquiry under a judge, Lord Hutton, which engaged the minute attention of the world of politics through to the end of the autumn of 2003. Much was revealed about Blair’s informal, sloppily recorded and cliquish style of governing, and the involvement of his political staff in the discussion which led to the final dossier. But with the head of the JIC and other officials insisting they had not been leant on, or obliged to say anything they did not believe, plus a very strong public performance by Blair, Lord Hutton concluded that Gilligan’s assertion that the government knew its forty-five-minute claim was wrong was unfounded.

The intelligence committee might have ‘subconsciously’ been persuaded to strengthen its language because they knew what the PM wished the effect of the dossier to be, but it was consistent with the intelligence at that time. Hutton decided that Kelly probably killed himself because of a loss of self-esteem and the threat to his reputation, but that nobody else was to blame (some journalists believed that he might have been murdered, but no hard evidence for this ever came to light). Hutton also attacked the BBC’s editorial controls, and his findings were leaked a day early to Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, which robustly set the political mood: victory for Blair; humiliation for the BBC.

Strangely though, as John Simpson has commented, no one from the Blair government had to resign over the clear misuse of intelligence or the misleading of Parliament. The only resignations came from the BBC: its Chairman and Director-General both went. With Blair defiant and claiming complete vindication in the Commons, both Dyke and Davies resigned almost immediately. The careers of most of the people involved were affected in some way. Distraught employees walked out from their offices to cheer their leaders as they left. The corporation suffered its worst-ever time, yet the stakes were high on both sides. Had Hutton found against the Prime Minister, it would have been Blair being applauded by his tearful staff as he walked into early retirement. Feeling vindicated and as aggressive as ever about the quality of journalism, Alastair Campbell then left Downing Street. Blair had concluded that the ‘age of spin’ had done them all far more harm than good. It was time, despite his personal debt to Campbell, for a new broom. A widely trusted and traditionalist press officer, David Hill, who had worked for Roy Hattersley, the former Deputy Leader, was appointed. Slowly, painfully, both the BBC and Number Ten moved on.

Blair had finally realised that the frantic headline-chasing and rebuttal of the early years of New Labour had merely helped to stoke an atmosphere of cynicism in the press. After Iraq, one of the most common jibes made about him, especially on the Labour Left, but also in the media, was simply ‘Bliar’. The relationship between the Blair government and the BBC never fully recovered from the ‘Gilligan episode’, however. Tessa Jowell, the minister with responsibility for negotiating the BBC’s new charter and setting the level of the licence fee, accepted the BBC’s argument for an increase to take account of inflation and the extra demands for technical change which the government was making of the BBC. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown turned this down, as Jowell had known they would. She supported the BBC and approved of its plans, and was prepared to play her trump card. She planned to tell Blair and Brown:

“You can’t afford to refuse the BBC a full licence-fee rise, because if they don’t get it, Michael Grade will resign as Chairman, and you simply can’t afford to lose two BBC chairmen in a short space of time like this. It would do terrible damage to the BBC, and it would look bad for the government.”

Quoted in Simpson, p. 26.

But as it happened, she wasn’t able to say this. With dreadful timing, Michael Grade, who had just taken over on the resignation of Gavyn Davies, announced at this crucial moment that he was returning to ITV so that the BBC lost another chairman in any case, and the conflict with the Blair government continued to simmer away.

As John Simpson concluded, the BBC is just about the only broadcasting organisation left in the world that still gets most of its income from the licence fee. Every other broadcaster that followed the same system, and that means those in just about every other major Commonwealth country, and some minor ones, has been forced to shift away from the mode. The result, he judges, has been very damaging to public service broadcasting in those countries. At some stage, he predicts, something like this will happen to the BBC when a government, Conservative or Labour, in a fit of pique such as that displayed by Alistair Campbell over the Gilligan report into the government’s actions prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, might decide that the licence fee would be better shared between broadcasters to ensure better programming or a ‘more balanced’ news service.

Then the government would face a choice, either to let the BBC decline through lack of funds or force it to make up the difference by taking advertising. Personally, I would now support a third option, replacing the licence fee with a subscription, open to a worldwide audience, with a free-to-air 24-hour news service on television and radio. Not taking advertising or sponsorship means that you won’t be in anyone’s pocket if you aren’t beholden to anyone for the money you spend. For more than a century now, this has worked out very well. But the fury of the Blair government over an accusation which turned out to be more than half true and that of the current Tory government over the criticism it recently received from a freelance BBC Sports presenter, will one day lead to the destruction of the Corporation in the form we have always known it. As Simpson puts it,

Some people, mostly the idealogues among us, will be glad about that. The rest, who simply want decent reliable broadcasting to watch and listen to, will find it deeply depressing.

John Simpson (2007), Not Quite World’s End. p.27.

For the Blair government, though, the key problem was that the intelligence which was so reliable, according to the prime minister when he spoke in the Commons, hadn’t been reliable at all. John Simpson had been told that the head of MI6 told the Butler Inquiry into the government’s use of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion that there had been no reliable information about many of Saddam’s WMD since 1988. Simpson also heard suggestions that members of Lord Butler’s inquiry into the use of intelligence had thought the government might fall as a result of the publication of their report in July 2004, but that the journalists who covered it had failed to spot how damaging the accusations were. They thereby let the government off the hook. Lord Butler, however, put the knife even deeper into the Blair government when he made a speech in the House of Lords in January 2007. He accused Tony Blair of being ‘disingenuous’ (‘deliberately misleading’).

All of this was very much what Andrew Gilligan had reported on the Today programme in 2004. The trouble was, although the basic facts of what Gilligan had said were true, his source wasn’t really strong enough or senior enough for Gilligan’s report to be waterproof. It was true that Tony Blair had been warned that the information about Saddam’s WMD wasn’t as strong as he maintained, but Dr David Kelly couldn’t have known it for a fact, and neither could Andrew Gilligan. Which all goes to show that if you are accusing the prime minister of ‘being disingenuous’, you must have pretty strong evidence to support it. But by 2007 the story was dead as a political issue. The dreadful damage done to the BBC was over and done with. Yet the question of whether the people of Britain had been seriously misled in the run-up to the Iraq invasion remained unanswered.

Winning Hearts & Minds – From Baghdad to Broadway:

Perhaps a more significant long-term issue that emerged from the Iraq War for journalists was that of the changing nature of war reporting in the twenty-first century.

In the autumn of 2003, Simpson was at home in London, recovering from being blown up in a friendly fire incident during the invasion and writing something against the clock when he answered a phone call from Tim Robbins, the Hollywood actor. Robbins wanted to quote something Simpson had written in a play he had written about the Iraq War for an ‘off-Broadway’ production. The quote was from a broadcast Simpson made when the American plane dropped a bomb on him, killing his translator and others, and striking him with shrapnel. In his new play, Embedded, there was a part for a woman journalist who, it seemed, stood for honesty and truth and honourable reporting, and Simpson’s words, together with those of other journalists who had seen the reality of what had happened in Iraq, formed part of a speech she made. It was clearly an anti-war play, and his contract with the BBC forbade him to venture into areas of controversy. On the other hand, the words he had spoken on camera immediately after the thousand-pound bomb landed in the middle of his group, killing eighteen of them, were already in the public domain. Maybe the BBC might want to make an issue of Robbins using it, but it didn’t matter to him.

In fact, Robbins had already used it as the play had already opened the previous week, so he offered the journalist tickets to see the show in New York, inviting him to dinner beforehand. He also asked if he could ask Simpson some questions about the war on stage afterwards. In Iraq, even at this early stage, it was evident that the joint British-American ‘enterprise’ was not going as well as President Bush, Donald Wolfowitz and their friends in the US press and broadcasting had assured everyone it would. At that stage, Simpson was visiting Baghdad every six weeks or so, and each time the situation was markedly worse than before; though the absurd figures whom Paul Bremer, Bush’s proconsul, had gathered around himself in the Green Zone, mainly young men fresh out of American universities in dark blazers and chinos, maintained loyally that the only problem was the negative way in which news organisations like the BBC reported ‘the achievements.’ Simpson admitted that he had a tendency to dislike all wars and invasions on principle:

I knew enough about Iraq to be certain that there would ultimately be a major insurrection against the presence of British and American troops there, much as there had been against the British in 1920. But I had assumed President Bush’s allies would turn out to be right in the early stages when they said the coalition forces would in the main be welcomed as liberators. Yet that wasn’t true by any means, and as the invasion wore on I wrote an ‘apologia’ in one of the British newspapers about it. I’m still proud of that. Not many other journalists or politicians seemed willing to admit they got it wrong.

Simpson, loc.cit., p. 122.

When Robbins said that he didn’t understand and asked him whether he was for the war or against it, Simpson answered:

‘It’s not my job to preach about these things. I have my own views, but I keep them to myself. When I’m there I just try to give as clear a view as I can about what’s going on, and then let the viewers make up their own minds.’


Simpson felt strongly that journalists had to try to present a balanced, unbiased account of what was happening. But Robbins felt that some subjects were so important that only campaigning journalism was ‘acceptable’. For Simpson, the opposite was true: the really important things need calm, unbiased, honest judgement even more than the less important issues. But this was all too ‘British’ for Tim Robbins, who saw Iraq entirely in black-and-white terms, ‘good against evil’. As the play came to an end, and Simpson prepared to go on stage, he felt that it had great strength to it and that some of its points of view were entirely correct. But questioner after questioner tried to get him to say that the war was wrong or ‘evil’. He explained again and again that these were not the kind of terms with which he dealt.

As to whether the US military was using the wrong tactics, he answered that patrolling the streets in armoured vehicles didn’t work and neither did shooting at the traffic that came too close to their patrols. Kicking down doors unnecessarily and treating every Iraqi as an enemy certainly didn’t work. The Iraq War was not supposed to be a war of attrition, but a ‘police operation’ in support of an elected government. Moreover, the US troops themselves must obey the law: beating, half-drowning freezing prisoners or threatening them with dogs was as foolish and counter-productive as it was ‘wicked’. He went on:

‘Hearts and minds aren’t just things you decide that morning to win. It’s got to be a long, long process, starting now and going on to the day the soldiers leave. … You just have to put up with all the stones and rockets and bullets they fire at you, and you still have to go the rounds asking people what their problems are, trying to fix things. It worked in Northern Ireland. It won’t work in Iraq because it hasn’t been systematically tried’.

Simpson, loc.cit., p. 124.
Returning to Baghdad – Dangerous Escapades:

British troops did their utmost in the devastated and violence-plagued world of post-war Iraq. By 2005, they were not welcomed by many in Iraq.

Simpson wrote that, aside from the initial invasion and conquest of Iraq, in the years that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there was still a relatively small group of Western journalists and cameramen who went regularly to Baghdad to report. He returned regularly during the years of insurgency, for the 2005 elections and for the trial of Saddam Hussein which began later the same year. He recalled how on 1st September 2006, he woke up to the sound of a distant explosion. Somewhere in the city, a car bomb had just gone off. He reported:

I could imagine the dreadful scene, the blood, the screaming, the stink of explosive, the noise of sirens and alarms and car horns. It was an inauspicious but not totally unfitting way to start the fortieth anniversary of my joining the British Broadcasting Corporation. …

I have come to loathe and despise the kind of violence that this latest explosion represented. Yet I didn’t want to stop reporting on events in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter.

Simpson, loc.cit., p. 28.

John Simpson reported on the wars of the 1990s, both in Europe & the Middle East.

Over the four decades of reporting from war zones, and in his series of books, Simpson has tended to stay quiet about the dangers of reporting from these zones, including from Baghdad. This was, he wrote in 2007 because it sounded like a convoluted form of self-praise: Baghdad is dangerous, I go to Baghdad, ergo I must be amazingly brave. But better than anyone, he knew how nervous he got when he was there, and how he constantly imagined the worst was about to happen to him. Although he didn’t have a military escort when he ventured out, he did have some of the best security people in the business to look after him. He wrote:

The brave onesare not the tourists who turn up from time to time, like me, but the full-time correspondents who have stayed in Baghdad over the years since Saddam Hussein’s fall.

Simpson, p. 154.

The BBC’s first correspondent in Baghdad was Caroline Hawley, who was in the role for three years. She was expelled from Iraq in 2002 but returned to the country after Saddam Hussein was removed from power the following year. Hawley and her partner were dining in the Grand Hyatt in Amman when it was bombed in November 2005 by al-Qaeda; they were physically unhurt themselves, but traumatised by the incident in which many others died or were seriously injured in front of them. Simpson commented:

It takes a particular form of determined, long-term courage to live in such places, to see so much death and destruction and at first hand, and to continue reporting it, day after frightening day. In my case, I would stay for only a couple of weeks and then head home; for Caroline, the nerve-racking conditions of Baghdad were her home.


For Simpson, the insurgency against the American and British forces in Iraq was the thirty-sixth war he had reported on in his career to that point. It had been by far the most dangerous of all of them: much worse than even the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. No other war he had reported on, including the Gulf War of 1990 and the wars in former Yugoslavia, had come anywhere near to the daily perils in Baghdad. By contrast, reporting from the southern city of Basra, which was held by the British from 2003 to 2007, was a good deal safer. The Sunni resistance, carrying out its daily suicide bombings, didn’t operate in Basra, and although it wasn’t exactly safe, it was a great deal easier to be there than in the capital. But no journalists were based in the so-called ‘Green Zone’, the vast suburban area of southern central Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris controlled by the Americans and the Iraqi Army, as claimed by some who had never been there. All of the crews, even the American ones, were based in the centre of the capital and were given no protection at all by either the US or the Iraqi armies. They lived either in rented houses or hotels.

The BBC, Reuter and the New York Times, for instance, were all based in a side-street area of the city which was still more-or-less mixed, cooperating with each other over security. The street was patrolled by armed men, day and night, and there were chicanes of concrete blocks twelve feet high. The houses used by the journalists were protected by steel doors. An attack on the BBC or the kidnapping of one of its employees would not have been impossible and would gain big headlines around the world. The BBC employed its own highly-trained security consultants, usually ex-SAS or other former military men, who accompanied them when filming in the city. Several of them had done close protection work previously. They had a rule that they would never stop in the same place for more than fifteen minutes, that being the time which, they worked out, it would take an insurgent to spot them and get fully armed support and attack them.

Simpson was very ‘attached’ to his flak jacket because it saved his life in northern Iraq in 2003, and, four years later, still had the hole in the material where a large chunk of shrapnel buried itself in the rear plastic panel protecting his back. The hole was directly over his spine, but it didn’t protect his hip from another large piece that hit him there, though doing him no real harm. Since it was not endangering any vital organs, the surgeons preferred to leave it where it was, since removing it would do damage to the nerves around it. He complained about it a bit when the weather was cold or he had to sit or stand for a long time, but he had actually grown quite fond of it, giving it the nickname ‘George W. Bush’, because it was a pain in the arse (or, in Texan, ‘ass’!) When this was quoted in a newspaper, he was rebuked for this by one of his various bosses at the BBC. Apparently, it was against BBC guidelines to make such jokes about world leaders.

Above: Driving to Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad. The security adviser in the front passenger seat adjusts the small camera to film the journey.

On his visits to Baghdad after the invasion, Simpson usually flew to Kuwait and then drove the whole way to Baghdad. This took between seven and ten hours, and as the situation in Iraq deteriorated in 2004, it became increasingly dangerous. They were subject to being stopped at highly questionable roadblocks by men who looked like policemen but were just as likely to be gangsters or insurgents. Also, trouble might flare up suddenly in the towns and villages they passed through, and they could easily be identified as foreigners and attacked.

The interior of the BBC van. Their protection lay not in heavy armour-plating, but in being inconspicuous.

This kind of travel, he remarked, was always a strain on both mind and body, so his crew was relieved when they were able to fly to Baghdad in an hour with the RAF, even though it required wearing full body armour in the heat of summer. Apparently, early on in the Iraq insurgency, one unfortunate passenger had been killed by a stray round from an AK-47 as the Hercules was close to the ground. After that, wearing body armour became mandatory. Direct attacks on RAF aircraft were also a regular risk. After one transport to Baghdad, the film crew paused while the aircrew posed for a photograph with them all together. The next day they heard that a Hercules had been shot down on a flight out of Baghdad to the north. Everyone on board, including a number of SAS men, had been killed. When he checked the names, he discovered that they also included the crew they had flown in with, chatting with them in the cockpit. He imagined the atmosphere in that cockpit as the plane went into its final dive.

Flying low over Baghdad in an RAF helicopter. The man controlling the machine guns has moved to one side.

John Simpson was a great admirer of Islam, appreciating its qualities as a religion and the Islamic culture, architecture, customs, laws and traditions it had created. It enraged him to hear American officials warning Iraqis that the patience of the United States could wear thin unless they did something to help themselves. Suggestions that the US had sacrificed a great deal to help Iraq, and that everything would be fine if only Iraqis would stop their incomprehensible violence were commonplace and made the journalist ‘boil with anger’. Of course, he had no sympathy for the suicide bombers and vicious criminals in the name of Islam, but, he wrote, …

if you invade a complex, finely balanced society and destroy all the constraints which stop people going for each other’s throats in the name of politics and religion, the primary blame is scarcely theirs.

Simpson, p. 163.
The Attack on Fallujah & its Aftermath, 2004-05:

In April 2004, US Marines attacked the small town of Fallujah, on the western outskirts of Baghdad. The intention was, apparently, to avenge the savage murders of four US security men who were dragged through the streets by a lynch mob and hanged from a bridge like slaughtered animals. It was appalling and seems that President Bush himself gave orders that the people of Fallujah should be taught a lesson. Until that moment, the insurgency against the coalition forces had been relatively mild. There were a few attacks every day, but it was still possible for Westerners to walk around alone, and drive from Baghdad to other parts of the country. I went to places as different as Tikrit, aggressively Sunni and strongly supportive of Saddam Hussein, whose pictures were still displayed on the main street, and the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, where the influence of the fierce young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was strong. The Americans also decided to take him on, thereby deciding to fight the war on two fronts.

The attack on Fallujah was thoroughly questionable. The Americans warned everyone to leave the small town beforehand and announced they would regard everyone who remained there as an enemy combatant. But of course, large numbers of the poorest, the weakest and the oldest were unable or unwilling to leave, and there is no clear evidence as to how many of them were killed by ground fire or aerial bombardment. The Geneva Convention forbids attacks on towns and cities from which the civilian population has not been properly evacuated. But the Bush administration decided that the Convention did not apply to what they considered was essentially a war of retribution and self-defence after the attacks on 9/11, for which they held both Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein responsible. Much later, President Bush had to admit that Saddam’s Iraq had not aided and abetted those attackers. This was a distinction which went unnoticed by large numbers in the United States. In 2003, one in five Americans polled thought Saddam and Bin Laden were one and the same person; the proportion was even higher among US servicemen, especially those fighting in Iraq. Given this level of ignorance, it is hardly surprising that so many Iraqi civilians were killed. The confusion was convenient for the Washington hawks.

The insurgency that followed the attack on Fallujah showed everyone that Iraq would never be a loyal American ally nor a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. It was also a strategic turning point in the war on terror, since after 2004, no one except for the ‘innocents’ in the Coalition Provisional Authority could seriously have believed that the invasion of Iraq was going to end up as a success in terms of its objectives of restoring order and establishing democracy. The CIA and the State Department both tried hard to explain the unwelcome realities of Iraqi life to the true believers in the White House and the Department of Defense. The latter put together a nine-hundred-page document about how Iraq should be run after the overthrow of Saddam. Part of it dealt with the difficult business of maintaining a balance between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, whose arrogance typified the whole Iraq operation, threw it in the waste bin, apparently uttering the words, “well, we won’t be needing that!”

At first, both the American and British governments, though not their respective diplomats (who knew more/ better), played down the sectarian divisions in Iraq. There was a tendency to talk stereotypically about ‘the Iraqis’ or the Iraqi people as though the population was pretty much ethnically and culturally homogenous, in the same way as they might talk about the neighbouring Iranians or even Syrians. Soldiers serving in Iraq, and especially those who had recently returned home, complained about the usually pessimistic reporting they saw, heard or read in the mainstream press and media. They often commented that all ‘the Iraqis’ where they were stationed were delighted to have the Coalition forces in their country. It became clear, however, that they were either talking about the Kurdish areas, where people were overwhelmingly in favour of the ‘occupation’, or the Shi’ite ones, where the pleasure of seeing Saddam overthrown, hadn’t yet worn off. But since the main hatred and violence towards coalition forces came from the Sunni areas, only roughly twenty per cent of the population of Iraq, and the previously ‘privileged’ pro-Ba’athist element in the population was to be found among them, these informal generalisations were meaningless self-delusion.

Simpson has admitted that the media itself did not help to clarify but rather added to the confusion. In April 2004, just as the assault on Fallujah was underway, the BBC and various other international news organisations commissioned an opinion poll across Iraq. It may sound strange to think that pollsters could travel the country, knocking on people’s doors and asking about their states of mind, when there was violence reached an unprecedented level, it was still possible to hold an effective nationwide opinion poll. The results, as we received them first, were very interesting. People were asked whether the invasion of 2003 had been a liberation or an occupation. Only a single percentage point separated the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes, 49 for ‘liberation’ and 48 for ‘occupation’; as one BBC headline put it:

‘Iraqis are finely divided between enthusiasm for the invasion and criticism of it.’

Simpson, p. 168.

It was only on the following day, when they were able to see more of the data from the opinion poll, that it became how misleading this headline and others had been. Virtually every Sunni who had replied to the question had said the invasion had resulted in an ‘occupation’; a surprising number of Shi’ites, and even a small number of Kurds agreed with them. Those who said it had resulted in a ‘liberation’ contained scarcely any Sunnis at all; they were overwhelmingly Kurdish and Shi’ite. Because the BBC and the other news organisations who participated still regarded Iraqis as a single national community, they misunderstood the nature of the answers they had received.

The Run-up to the 2005 Election & its Results:

As the election of January 2005 came closer, there was immense pressure from both governments on Western journalists in Baghdad to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of it. In this case, this meant glossing over the differences between the various elements within the population. The British government, aware of the scepticism in the press and media at home, put a good deal of effort into persuading the British public that the election was a success and that the great majority of Iraqis were happy with the new system. The British embassy in Baghdad was headed by people who knew perfectly well that this was not the case, and they were honest about it. But Downing Street put its own people into the embassy to make sure that the ‘right’ message was put out. So they organised for their press machine to organise a trip to Iraq so that the large number of journalists who had come to Baghdad to report on the election could see the Iraqi people voting. However, what they saw was not a cross-section of the Iraqi electorate, but those voting in a strongly Shi’ite region in the south.

There was never any doubt that there would be a very large turnout. Throughout the Saddam Hussein era and even before, the Shi’ites had been barred from any kind of political power or influence, even though they formed the clear majority of the population. They understood that the American and British invasion had smashed Sunni minority power in the country and that this election was their first chance to take control of it themselves. So, of course, they turned out in their millions; it was a moving and impressive sight to watch them. For the British and American governments, the television images of large numbers of Iraqis voting would by themselves provide a vindication of their invasion. Saddam Hussein had been a tyrant; now the people of Iraq were free to express their real political views. But to call them simply ‘Iraqis’ was completely misleading. It gave the impression that the nation had come forward as a whole to take advantage of its newfound freedom. In the Sunni areas, by contrast, a majority of people were planning to stay at home on election day as they felt was a distinct threat to any Sunnis who wanted to vote. This wasn’t the image and the message that the White House and Downing Street wanted to broadcast.

Most of the British TV and newspaper journalists who had come to Baghdad to report on the election accepted the offer of free transport to the Shi’ite south without even thinking about it. The pictures they obtained told the story, but it wasn’t the full story, and it wasn’t even half the true story. For Simpson and his colleagues, the important thing was what happened in the Sunni areas. If people there had turned out in huge numbers, then that really would be a ringing endorsement of the British and American invasion. But of course, they didn’t; some Sunnis voted, but in their areas, partly because many felt threatened anyway, there was something of a boycott. For some time, Simpson’s ‘regular crew’ had to contend with suggestions from within the BBC that they had deliberately downplayed the success of the election. Memories were recalled of the time in 1999 when based in Belgrade during the NATO bombing, he had reported that the bombs were hardening people’s resistance rather than weakening it. He was seen in Downing Street as being…

a contrarian, a naysayer, an ingrained critic… an enemy (with) the basest political motives.

Simpson, loc. cit., p. 170.

Slowly, though, the reality in Iraq became more evident. People began to understand that this election and the two later votes in 2005 simply made the sectarian and ethnic divides even fiercer and more obvious. Iraqis were being forced to decide, often for the first time, whether they were basically Shi’ite or Sunni, and whether they would express their religious identity by voting for their sect. In that sense, there was no objective distinction between religion and the new state. The elections were the main achievement of the invasion, but although it was a great thing to see people voting freely for the first time, the act of voting in actual fact made the violence and the divisions in Iraq all the worse.

This, however, Simpson concludes, was not an inevitable result of the invasion. Certainly, a number of senior British diplomats felt it would have been possible to devise elections which kept Iraqis together rather than emphasise the differences between them. But the ‘Washington hawks’ were impatient with these convoluted, decadent, mandarin means. The Coalition ‘chief’ in Baghdad, Paul Bremer III and his patrons in Washington, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, believed the way forward could be quicker and easier. If Iraqis were just allowed to vote, that would sort everything out. But it didn’t. In 2003 and early 2004, however, it had still possible to find real optimism among the people of Baghdad. Simpson explained the collapse of confidence in the following terms:

It never occured to them, I think, that the most powerful nation in history could fail when it set its mind to something. Slowly, though, this changed. The awkwardness and widespread lack of elementary social skills among the American soldiers began to enrage ordinary Iraqis. The majority treated all Iraqis as enemies, just as their predecessors had once treated all Vietnamese, then were surprised to find that most Iraqis did indeed come to hate them. …

… This should have been a war for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. But it was fought by soldiers who were trained for aggression, and who were usually exonerated if they maintained they had opened fire because they thought their lives were in danger. You don’t win hearts and minds by firing at civilians. On the contrary, you have to be prepared to be fired at forty-eight times out of fifty without firing back.

Simpson (2007), loc. cit., pp. 175-76.

Over the remainder of 2005, the situation grew worse, until the Americans announced that when their convoys or those of the Iraqi Army were patrolling, every vehicle on the road had to stop, or else stay a hundred yards back. The rear gunner possessed the power of life or death, and he or she was hated for it. If they decided that there was something suspicious about the car following them from the proscribed distance, there would be no problem with them opening fire.

But over the years, Simpson also met a number of senior military men, from the generals who ran things in Baghdad to General David Petraeus (pictured above), who was eventually promoted to command the entire American operation in Iraq. The more of these people he met and interviewed, the more impressive I found them to be. They were not mindless gung-ho characters careless of civilian losses or the actions of their own men. They knew perfectly well that the enterprise was likely to fail, and did their best to tell the Washington politicians what was happening. Many of them also had a deep dislike of Donald Rumsfeld, who had got them into this war with insufficient resources and who treated them vindictively if they made their own views public. David Petraeus had a highly successful war and was the leading advocate in the US forces of the policy of winning hearts and minds.

On the other side, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaking of the latest group of suicide bombers who had just murdered dozens of innocents, said “they have the honour, by God’s grace, of being in paradise.” But John Simpson had seen the broken bodies and lives that the daily bombings in Iraq had brought. To him, they all used the same weapons and the same argument: that it’s unfortunate that ordinary people’s lives have to be sacrificed, but there is a greater good that we must bear in mind. He wrote that there are few arguments more despicable than this business of treating the innocent as a target in order to strike at the people who govern them. The lesson that he took away from his experience of the Iraq war was…

… that life itself is immensely valuable; not just the lives of people who think and look and worship like us… people who are the right type of Christian or Muslim, but all lives.

Ibid., p. 184.
Reporting for Posterity – The Trial of Saddam Hussein:

Saddam Hussein’s trial began on 5 November 2005. By then, his reputation was very low, even among his former supporters. The assembled journalists, including John Simpson, had not come to watch a caged lion, but a vanquished prisoner. Saddam challenged the authority of the court to try him, given that it was set up as a result of an invasion which did not have the full sanction of the United Nations. But he then went on to enter a plea of ‘Not Guilty’. He often seemed plodding and uncertain in defending himself. Sometimes he challenged the evidence of witnesses to remarkable effect, but then days would pass during which he failed to make any points at all. Gradually, however, his confidence grew, and he began to bring the Koran into court as soon as his American captors would approve it, waving it at the judges and ostentatiously looking up references in it. People in Iraq began to watch the proceedings on television for the extraordinary novelty of seeing their former dictator paraded in front of their eyes, a broken man who would soon be executed. They found themselves sympathising with him, and in the teahouses of Baghdad, they would bang the tables when he made what they thought was a good point.

The fear of him had long faded. At first, even in 2005, most people in Iraq still assumed that the Americans would get their own way because they were the world’s only superpower. The extraordinary truth, that the USA was not as powerful as everyone had assumed, had not yet begun to sink in. As the trial progressed, Saddam began once again to have great rallying power among Sunnis. Putting him on trial certainly didn’t create the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. That had begun almost as soon as he was deposed. But it did provide it with a martyr, a former authority figure who was mocked and humiliated in front of everyone’s eyes. By contrast, Shi’ite anger grew commensurately, and defence lawyers began to be murdered. The charges against him were strangely chosen. This was a man who had ordered the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men and women as a matter of policy. Some of these massacres were well-known outside the country; at Halabja for instance, where poison gas was dropped onto the rebellious townspeople or the systematic killings of Kurds and Shi’ites after the abortive uprisings of 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

Yet the Régime Crimes Liaison Office advised Saddam’s prosecutors to select an incident which was easier to prove. It was one about which most international journalists, even Simpson, knew very little: the killing of 143 men and boys after an attempt to assassinate the dictator in the Shi’ite town of Dujayl in 1983. Saddam himself made the point that in any country an attempt on the life of the Head of State would bring some kind of retribution, and there was still some confusion as to who precisely had been responsible for which deaths in Dujayl. The trial rumbled on for a year, during which he was also charged along with his relative, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as ‘Chemical Ali’ after Halabja, for the killings of tens of thousands of Kurds and the destruction of their towns and villages. But Saddam was already dead by the time the trial on the second charge was concluded. The Iraqi constitution specified that any punishment had to be carried out within thirty days of the final appeal being rejected. Saddam was found guilty of the Dujayl killings on 5 November 2006, and his appeal was turned down on 26 December. He was executed four days later. The insurgency continued, however.

Legacy of the War:

Iraqi followers of Muqtada al-Sadr wave their national flag during a protest on 16 March 2013 in the city of Kut on the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images.
Appendix One –
Richard Toye on…
The effect of the Iraq War on British foreign policy:

The 2003 war in Iraq was a watershed moment in British domestic politics. Whether it also led to a fundamental shift in UK foreign policy is a difficult question to answer. Clearly, the popular reaction against the war — once it became clear that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction — led to some degree of change. It is now a convention that Parliament has the chance to debate military deployments, except in case of emergency. This does not have any legal force, but in 2013 the Commons did hinder military action against Syria when the government lost a vote to approve it. More generally, Tony Blair’s fall from public grace may have dampened leaders’ enthusiasm for foreign military ventures.

At the same time, the fundamentals of the Anglo-US relationship, including Britain’s effective subordination to American strategy, have not changed. It is also difficult to imagine that Downing Street’s reaction to, say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, would have been radically different had the Iraq invasion not occurred. However, by sowing distrust in political elites, the events of twenty years ago may have fed the growth of British populism — and thus helped trigger the geopolitical earthquake that was Brexit.

Richard Toye is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter.


Appendix Two –
Louise Fawcett on…
The Iraq War’s impact on regional politics in the Middle East:

The Iraq War and subsequent occupation, aside from its devastating consequences for Iraq itself, had profound (and unintended) consequences for regional and international order which resonate today. By producing a ‘weak’ Iraqi state, the war transformed the regional balance of power into one characterized by an unstable Saudi–Iran rivalry and a volatile system of alliances. The Middle East’s already weak regional institutions were also further damaged by the conflict’s repercussions, with many actors seeking new institutional relationships elsewhere.

Furthermore, the invasion had a detrimental impact on western states’ legitimacy and reputation, while reducing their appetite for costly international interventions. The willingness of policy-makers to use traditional hard-power resources to achieve their foreign-policy objectives declined alongside a reduced commitment to the region. This diminution of western, and particularly US, power and influence has helped to create new opportunities for states like China and Russia to enhance their own strategic positions, with the former making the region a central part of its Belt and Road Initiative and the latter establishing a strategic foothold through its support for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. As these dramatic shifts demonstrate, the after-effects of the invasion remain with us in ways that make it all the more vital to gain a fresh understanding of the conflict and its regional and geopolitical fall-out.

Louise Fawcett is a Professor of International Relations and Wilfrid Knapp Fellow and Tutor in Politics at St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford.


Published Sources:

John Simpson (2007), Not Quite World’s End: A Traveller’s Tales. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Blog Articles:
International Affairs

International Affairs



The Lineker-Braverman Controversy: Migration, Language & History – Troping the Thirties.

Count him out, not out of order.
Lineker in 2021 (Wikipedia)

I didn’t read this on the 7th of March when Gary Lineker posted it. I was following him on Twitter, but I finally left this ‘forum’ after Donald Trump was reinstated on it last year, even while his role (and his tweeting) was still being investigated for incitement to insurrection on 6th January 2021. I’d been on Twitter for nearly fifteen years but only used it to draw attention to more extensive posts, either by myself or others. I rarely made statements, and when I did (ironically in support of the England football team ‘taking the knee’), I was met with a barrage of abuse from Hungarian ‘tweeters’.

I live in Hungary and the England team was playing here at that time. Twitter is a lazy tool for historians, at least because it breaks the basic rules for historical discourse, which requires us to explain our statements and back them up with evidence. I know we are not so restricted in the number of characters we can use, but many still tweet assertions, often extreme in their use of language, whether from the Right or the Left.

Gary Lineker began his football career at Leicester City in 1978 and finished as the (then) First Division’s joint top goalscorer in 1984–85. He then moved to league champions Everton where he won both the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year awards in his debut season, before moving to Spanish giants Barcelona. With Barcelona, he won the 1987–88 Copa del Rey and the 1989 European Cup Winners’ Cup. His six goals in the 1986 FIFA World Cup made him the tournament’s top scorer, receiving the Golden Boot. His Golden Boot-winning performance at the finals generated much anticipation of success at Camp Nou, and he did not disappoint, scoring twenty-one goals in 41 games during his first season, including a hat-trick in a 3–2 win over archrivals Real Madrid. Lineker was again integral to England’s progress to the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, scoring another four goals. He still holds England’s record for goals in the FIFA World Cup. 

In 1999, Lineker became the BBC’s anchorman for football coverage, including its flagship football television programme Match of the Day, becoming BBC Sport’s highest-paid presenter. The BBC’s Director General, Tim Davie, stated that Lineker’s pay was justified “because of the value of analysis to the viewing audience”. Lineker has been noted for his political views which he shares on Twitter. In December 2016, he was described by Angus Harrison of Vice News as “the British Left’s Loudest Voice” for being “both staunchly liberal and resolutely unafraid of making his views known”. Using a football analogy, Lineker defined his ideological position as “I make more runs to the left than the right, but never felt comfortable on the wing”. After the 2017 United Kingdom general election, Lineker wrote:

“Anyone else feels politically homeless? Everything seems far right or way left. Something sensibly centrist might appeal?”

Lineker endorsed a Remain vote in the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum. In July 2018, he announced his support for People’s Vote, a campaign group calling for a public vote on the final Brexit deal between the UK and the European Union. On 18 October 2016, Lineker tweeted a rebuttal to a statement made by David Davis MP in which Davis suggested refugees entering the UK should undergo dental checks to verify their age:

“The treatment by some towards these young refugees is hideously racist and utterly heartless. What’s happening to our country?”

This led The Sun to call for Lineker’s sacking from Match of the Day (MOTD), accusing him of breaching BBC impartiality guidelines. In December 2018, Lineker was criticised by the BBC’s cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew for expressing his political views on Twitter. Agnew wrote:

“You are the face of BBC Sport. Please observe BBC editorial guidelines and keep your political views, whatever they are and whatever the subject, to yourself. I’d be sacked if I followed your example.” 

In response, a BBC spokesperson said:

“Gary is not involved in any news or political output for the BBC and as such, any expression of his personal political views does not affect the BBC’s impartiality.”

Nevertheless, on the 10th of March 2023, Lineker was required by the Director General to step back from presenting on the BBC for three days due to the controversy over his pronouncement on the British government’s asylum policy on Twitter. Lineker is not involved in any news or political comment on the BBC, whereas Agnew has interviewed former UK Prime Ministers and other politicians interested in cricket, and other cricket presenters like Ian Botham and Geoffrey Boycott have used their ‘profiles’ to make right-wing comments on social media. Neither is he a full-time employee of the BBC but is contracted as a self-employed consultant for MOTD and other sports programmes. We do not know the terms of his contract, but the BBC’s answer to Agnew seems to recognise his right to express his views on social, historical and political matters. The only remaining issue for me is whether, as Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader remarked, comparisons with 1930s Germany are “the best way” to make an argument. Given Lineker’s previous statement on the ‘treatment’ of refugees, I wanted to investigate the connection he made between the language used by government ministers and that used in the 1930s.

Historical Instincts & Precedents:

My ‘historical’ instinct kicked into action when I first heard the furore about Gary Lineker’s tweet and then read his tweet via a friend on Facebook. The only potential error or mistake I could see in his ‘tweet’ was that his claim about ‘Germany in the thirties’ needed explaining and expanding in terms of more substantial evidence about the alleged historical antecedents and the appropriacy of their application to current events. I’m not sure whether one of Lineker’s four ‘O’ Levels was in history, but, for me, it does not go beyond assertion and would not lead to an award of a top grade at GCSE today. One of Gary’s teachers wrote on his report card that he “concentrates too much on football”, himself adding a prospective assertion that he would “never make a living at that”. Had he gone on to do an ‘A’ Level in History, however, he might have understood the necessity of providing an argument supported by explanation and examples.

So, having read, written and taught extensively on “the thirties” in Britain, Europe and the United States, I decided to conduct my own research using primary and secondary sources to hand and online. Also, as a teacher of both language and history for over forty years, my role has not been to remove bias but to make sure my students are aware of their own biases and prejudices. We all have questions about the past which determine the answers we encounter and the interpretations we make. History is not a ‘pure’ science; it is concerned with the whole of human life in all its quirks and imperfections. Therefore, the answers we find, though definitive, are never final but always provisional. The question we all share, however, is what can we learn from the past? Even professional historians have issues with roots in the present; they rarely approach the traces of past people and events simply by asking what happened, how and why? The answers to those questions are nearly always complex and relate to our current consciousness of key issues. We find ourselves applying the prefixes How far..? or To what extent..? to our interrogations and investigations to allow for that complexity to be expressed in terms of a continuum. So the question with which I approach Lineker’s statement is:

To what extent can the language in current debates about ‘asylum’ and ‘migration’ be compared with that used by Germany in the 1930s?

Later than They Thought:

As a source to answer this, I turned first to René Cutforth’s (1976) book, Later than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties, a favourite of mine among the books dealing with the period. Cutforth was ‘born and bred’ in a coal mining town in industrial Derbyshire, and had seen service in the Army in Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Western Desert, becoming a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany. He became well-known after the war as a distinguished broadcaster and writer, travelling the world as a BBC correspondent and making many documentaries, some of which I vaguely remember watching in the seventies. He made some of these for ITV. His account of the Thirties is highly personal, concerned with the impact of the decade as he felt it as a young man (he was twenty-one in 1930), with intellectual attitudes and social changes rather than with a formal historical narrative; he is interested in the motivations of Mosley and his Fascists, the new poets of revolution and the tired old politicians staggering from one crisis to the next, all against the backdrop of great events including, for our purpose, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler.

By taking a step back, however, we become aware that, among all the decades of the twentieth century, there is a popular mythology attached to the 1930s as The Devil’s Decade. W. H. Auden, the leader of a group of young poets who were held to have been the new voice of the period, called it ‘… a mean and sordid decade.’ The Thirties were also ‘troped’, by the 1970s, as the Wasted Years and the ‘low dishonest decade’ and ‘the long weekend’. Even for those, like myself and Gary Lineker, who did not live through them but grew up in the seventies, the 1930s are haunted by the spectres of mass unemployment, hunger marches, appeasement, and the rise (and post-war endurance) of fascism at home and abroad. In a sense, the Second World War served to perpetuate the more depressing image of the thirties, partly at least because the politics of the immediate post-war era were fought on the record of the pre-war years. Churchill himself fought and lost the 1945 election by comparing his opponents to the ‘Gestapo’, and as late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with the slogan, ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of how the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché.

The popular view of the 1930s as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war, a view that was sharpened against the backdrop of full employment and affluence in the 1950s and ’60s. In the 1970s and 1980s, with the return of mass unemployment and the spectre of far-right, anti-immigrant extremism, the ghost of the thirties stalked the political platforms and demonstrations under the slogan ‘no return to the thirties’. By then, the decade had become a metaphor for economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent. As Stevenson and Cook wrote in 1977:

A concentration upon unemployment and social distress does not represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. … It would, of course, be fatuous to suggest that the 1930s were not for many thousands of people a time of great hardship and personal suffering. But beside the picture of the unemployed must be put the other side of the case. … Alongside the picture of dole queues and hunger marches must also be placed those of another Britain, of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living. … This was the paradox which lay at the heart of Britain in the thirties. …

John Stevenson & Chris Cook (1977), The Slump – society and politics during the Depression. London: Cape, pp. 1-4.
Germany Between the Wars:

It was also a paradox which lay at the heart of much of Europe, especially in Germany. German insolvency in the Twenties and the depression which now set in in the Thirties had brought the country to the verge of revolution. In Britain at the time, nobody would have been surprised if Germany had gone communist in a sudden coup, and the German middle classes had long trembled on the brink of disaster. It took them some time to realise that the name of Hitler’s party, the National Socialist Party, was extremely misleading and that what he stood for was paranoid nationalism, racialism and militarism, with the Jews as internal, ‘eternal’ scapegoats; but when they did they began to see him as the saviour who would discipline the working class, rid the businessmen of their smarter competitors, the Jews, and make the name of Germany feared once more in the world. The aristocratic land-owning class saw him as a useful weapon against Communism: the unemployed were in the mood for a saviour of some sort, and democracy was a very new and, in some ways, foreign concept. The German working classes were used to dictatorial masters; now they were all going to be masters – the Master Race, which they had always believed in their hearts that they were. According to Cutforth, The Weimar Republic which Hitler took over in 1933 was viewed as…

the pet of the intelligentsia, the first tolerant and permissive society in Europe, teeming with liberal good intention, particularly kind to sexual deviants who flocked there from all over the place. But the lost war rankled in the hearts of many old soldiers still in their thirties, who had fallen for the lie that the German Army was never defeated and that panic among the civilians had dictated the surrender. They could be made to see the Weimar Republic as something soft, decadent and shameful, particularly if they were unemployed.

Cutforth (1976), pp. 64-65.

President Hindenburg’s idea was to let Hitler loose on the Communists and then for the traditional conservatives and mainstream nationalists like him to stamp on Hitler. That strategy did not work, however. Hindenburg died and with him the old Germany for which he stood. Hitler gained absolute power in 1933. How then, did it come about that the Germans, with their most liberal republic, if a brittle one, became saddled with him as their new dictator? Another contemporary commentator wrote his answer in his book:

For a time the Extreme Left and the Extreme Right seemed to be running neck and neck. But Communism had a fatal handicap: its revolution had already taken place, and the German people had been able to observe it at fairly close range. The German people were sick of the class struggle, sick of capitalism, and above all, sick of Berlin, that modern Gomorrah and source of all their ills. There is no great mystery about Hitler’s coming to power. The simplest explanation is the best: the German people chose him.

John Manders (1959), Berlin-The Eagle and the Bear: Barry & Rockliff.
Fascists, Appeasers and Pacifists in Thirties Britain:

Of course, Hitler’s Germany was not the only example of Fascist rule in Europe in the 1930s. Mussolini in Italy, also with the early support of socialists, had established the original ‘model’ in the mid-twenties, and Franco came to power in Spain in 1939 as a result of three years of bloody civil war. Any footballer, like Gary Lineker, who spent time in Spain in the 1980s would be only too aware of the long-term role of fascism in football there. In Britain, Mosley’s Fascists took full advantage of the general restlessness and stepped up their uniformed parades until the East End of London was invaded almost every night. They had no doctrines except jingoism, wrapping themselves in the Union flag and openly displaying their hatred of Jews and Communists. The East End, with its large Jewish population, was the chief battleground of opposing factions. On May Day in 1938, the traditional May Day Festival in Bermondsey was subjected to a counter-demonstration by the British Union of Fascists (BUF), pictured below. At Mosley’s rallies, the formula was usually the same. When the halls had filled, the doors were locked and the speeches began. A spotlight was trained on the audience from the platform and if any heckler was identified by it, he would be quickly surrounded by ‘biff boys’ who would beat him up in view of the audience before dragging him outside to beat him even more brutally. Cutforth commented on these rallies and marches:

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

Cutforth, pp. 69-72.
The 1938 Bermondsey Fascist Counter-rally. The Fascist salute, taken very seriously by the BUF leadership, was regarded as comic by most of the public. (Radio Times Hulton Picture Library)

The Communists and the Fascists met and fought from time to time, but this never became a public menace as it did in Berlin in the early Thirties. That same year, the England Football team visited Berlin and was told by its own government and FA that its players would be required to make the Nazi salute. When one of its key players, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Stan Cullis, refused to do this, he was dropped.

Stan Cullis joined Wolves as a player in February 1934 and for the next thirty years, he was Wolverhampton Wanderers. A born leader, he captained Wolves before his nineteenth birthday, and England a few years later. The outbreak of war limited him to twelve full England caps, plus twenty war-time appearances. He was a member of the Wolves FA Cup Final team in 1939. He finished playing in 1947 after making 171 appearances for the Wolves, he became assistant manager to Ted Vizard and in 1948 he took over as manager to begin an era of an unprecedented. As the architect of the Wolves’ triumphs, his record as manager was three League Championships in 1953/54, 57/58 and 58/59, and two FA Cups, in 1949 and 1960. In addition, he managed Wolves to European ‘floodlit friendly’ victories over Spartak Moscow (4-0), Honved Budapest (3-2), Moscow Dynamo (2-1), and Real Madrid (3-2) between 1954-57. On 11 December 1956, the Wolves drew 1-1 with another Budapest team, ‘Red Banner’ (MTK), in a ‘Benefit’ match for the Hungarian Refugee Relief Fund, set up after the Soviet occupation of Hungary in November. MTK’s team was packed with Hungarian internationals, three of whom had played in the humiliating 6-3 and 7-1 defeats of England in 1953-54.

Source: John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against The World. Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd.

The infection of Fascist mass-conditioning did cross the Channel, but it generally bred much milder mutations in the British atmosphere, including, however, the policies of ‘non-intervention’ and ‘appeasement’. However, as Keith Robbins has written, it would be a mistake to suppose that the roots of ‘appeasement’ are to be found in a pervasive, but ill-defined ‘pacifism’. Appeasement as a policy did not rest upon any theoretical or theological underpinnings frequently used to support pacifism. When compared with the pamphlets, articles and books of this period in which the word ‘pacifism’ occurs, there is very little material which seeks to expound and defend appeasement. Pacifists were committed to an ideology, whereas appeasers were only advocating a specific a particular policy or approach in particular circumstances. Pacifists, at least by the late 1930s, did not like the notion that they were de facto appeasers, taking the view that their opposition to war stemmed from high-minded principles. Pacifists faced the prospect of possible subjection if their country did not fight with equanimity and courage.

Pacifists tended to believe that appeasers, on the contrary, were either craven or covert sympathisers of Fascism. Appeasers, in turn, rejected the idea that they were either pacifists or crypto-fascists. At this particular juncture, they might have shared the belief that it was in Britain’s best interests to go to great lengths, possibly even humiliating lengths, to avoid participating in another major European war. In other circumstances, however, many of those who advocated appeasement in the 1930s advocated that war could still be justified. They believed that ‘pure pacifism’ was apolitical and had no relevance to the ambivalent choices that politicians were always compelled to make. It is therefore not too difficult, in retrospect, to distinguish between pacifism and appeasement. For contemporaries, however, who could not share our certainty that there would, indeed, be a Second World War, the division was by no means clear-cut.

After, and even before Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, there were prominent pacifists who refused to accept that their stance was irrelevant as policy and that a second war was an inevitability. George Lansbury, a Labour veteran, and Christian pacifist was amongst their number. But the Labour Party as a whole did not accept his absolutist convictions. On the other hand, there were appeasers who did not seek to buttress appeasement by doctrine, but who, nevertheless, loathed the prospect of war. In practice, therefore, there could be an emotional overlap, even if there was not an intellectual one, between these streams of opinion. The relationship between a ‘pacifist mood’ in public opinion and the making of the policy of appeasement is difficult to discern.

Far more effective, politically, was Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club whose sixty thousand readers each received a book a month, chosen by Gollancz and two Marxist intellectuals. It was not necessary to be a Communist or even a ‘Socialist’ to be ‘on the Left’ in the Thirties. There was a large, vague area of opinion which called itself, simply ‘anti-fascist’, a title which included almost everybody who was at all excited by new ideas in Britain, of whom there were not many at the time, and it was to these ‘anti-fascists’ that the Left Book Club addressed itself. They also held meetings at the Royal Albert Hall to support the Spanish Republicans, and to urge a popular front against Fascism. It was an effective propaganda machine of which the Communists were eager beneficiaries, but it brought together speakers from across a broad section of the political spectrum.

In the thirties, especially between 1933 and 1937, ‘public opinion’, in the absence of objective evidence, was whatever leading politicians wanted it to be. Even in this limited period, external developments in Ethiopia, the Rhineland and Spain caused individuals to change their minds. But governments have a duty to ‘educate’ their electorates about the reality of events as they perceive them and even resort to ‘propaganda’ to achieve that object if need be. Appeasement did not arrive on the scene as a fully-formed policy at a specific point on ‘the road to war’: policy was routinely hammered out and adjusted in the normal interplay of Whitehall and Westminster. It is perhaps more useful, therefore, to talk of the appeasers, as Robbins did in his (1988) book and A. L. Rowse did in 1961, referring back to the ‘All Souls’ think tank of those years:

Chamberlain knew no history … and had no conception of the elementary necessity of keeping the balance of power on our side; no conception of the Grand Alliance, or of its being the only way to contain Hitler and keep Europe safe. …

The total upshot of the appeasers’ efforts was to aid Nazi Germany to achieve a position of brutal ascendancy, a threat to everybody else’s security or even existence, which only a war could end. This had the very result of letting the Russians into the centre of Europe which the appeasers wished to prevent. Of course their responsibility was a secondary one. The primary responsibility was all along that of the Germans: the people in the strongest strategic position in Europe, the keystone of the whole European system, but who never knew how to behave, whether up or down, in the ascendant arrogant and brutal, in the defiant base and grovelling.

These men had no real conception of Germany’s character or malign record in modern history. Quite simply, we owe thewreck of Europe’s position in the world to Germany’s total inability to play her proper role in it.

A. L. Rowse (1961), All Souls and Appeasement. Macmillan, pp. 57-59, 63, 117.

The New Germany, 1933-39:

A fanfare of the Hitler Youth at the Party Rally at Nuremberg in 1935. The rallies were the centrepiece of the Party calendar, at which the leadership was expected to indicate future policy and ideological development. The 1935 rally saw the introduction of the so-called Nuremberg Laws which instigated racial inequality.

There had been ‘Youth’ movements in Germany in the nineteenth century and the best known of them, the Wandervogel, were very much in vogue in the Twenties. They were groups of young men and women who walked long distances in the open air and sang romantic lieder around campfires at night to the accompaniment of mandolins. René Cutforth described how he went for a wander with the Wandervogal in the late Twenties. It was a mixed group and his ‘companion’ was a soundlessly silly girl called Eva with flaxen hair wound around her head in plaits.

Her brother, Ernst, was a pacifist and anarchist, a Wordsworthian young man. There was plenty of silly talk about the Aryans, but it was romantic, not aggressive. The main topic of conversation was how to escape the control of the frightful old men who had made the last war and detested freedom everywhere.

By the early Thirties the Nazi Youth Leader, Baldur von Schirach, had ushered all these young people into the Hitler Jugend. Cutforth met Ernst and some of his companions in 1936 and recognised a sea change in these romantic, rather humourless, but likeable youths:

They had become arrogant in a petulant way: every sentence began with ‘Of course’, followed by some bloody-minded paradox:

“Of course, we must separate ourselves from the Jews; it is the way to true community”; “Of course, we want peace, and we shall give it to you whether you want it or not.”

Their great word was ‘decadent’; anything which showed the least sign of liberalism, tolerance or even civilisation was ‘dekadent’.

Cutforth, pp 72-73.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 017-1.jpg

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 017-3.jpg

These attitudes helped the Nazis come to power and to instigate their systematic destruction of the human rights of dissidents and minorities within the new Nazi ‘order’. The Nazi régime placed great emphasis on education and popular culture as a means of developing racial awareness. In both schools and universities, there was a large proportion of Party members among the teaching staff. At school, lessons on race and German history reflected the ideological imperatives of the régime. At the highest level, the number of students at universities and technical colleges declined, partly as a result of pressure to exclude women from higher education. Most young German men on finishing school were enrolled in the compulsory Labour Service or for military training. At the secondary level, ‘Adolf Hitler Schools’ were established in 1936 to train the Party’s future élite. Great emphasis was placed on physical education since healthy, active bodies were regarded as necessary for the biological welfare of the race and sporting achievement was heralded as a racial duty. Thousands of young Germans took the Reich sports tests to qualify for the Reich Sports Badge.

Programmes of gymnastics and callisthenics were introduced into schools, offices and factories. The Strength through Joy organisations of the Labour Front employed a thousand full-time sports instructors. But anti-Semitism was introduced in sport as early as April 1933 when Jews were banned from Germany’s thirteen thousand gymnastic clubs. When Germany bid successfully to host the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, the régime was determined to use the occasion to promote the event as a triumph for the Nazi’s régime. As part of the preparation for the games, Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, established in 1933, undertook to establish a worldwide broadcasting network to relay the Games as they happened. Control of broadcasting was a significant feature of the propaganda effort of the régime.

In 1933 alone, fifty of Hitler’s speeches were relayed over the radio, and in May of that year, work began on developing the mass-produced ‘People’s Radio’ (Volksempfänger) of which they were 3.5 million sets by 1939. By then, seventy per cent of German households possessed a radio, while the Goebbels ministry planned to set up six thousand loudspeaker towers in city streets to bring propaganda directly to the people. Radio was also used as…

In these ways, Goebbels succeeded in putting propaganda at the centre of German speakers’ political and cultural life.

The Nazi régime had begun to construct a system of repression and political surveillance within weeks of taking power in 1933, and by 1936 the network of police and SS terror covered the whole Reich. The Nazi régime imposed two forms of repression on its political opponents and other dissidents. The first was developed through state channels; the second came from the activities of Party institutions, primarily Himmler’s Schulzstaffeln (SS), but also the Party Security organisation, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). The framework for repression was supplied by the Emergency Decree that followed the Reichstag Fire in February 1933.

A state of emergency remained permanently in force. It allowed the police to take political suspects into ‘protective custody’. On 17 June 1936, Himmler was appointed Chief of the German Police, with extraordinary powers over the whole population. The repression of political enemies of the new régime produced a large prison population which was housed in a number of concentration camps set up from 1933 on. Between 1933 and 1939 approximately 225,000 Germans were imprisoned for ‘political crimes,’ as defined by the régime.

Hitler’s own SS guard, parading on 9 November 1935, the twelfth anniversary of the failed Munich Putsch.

The Nazi régime also pursued a programme of ‘biological politics’ to create a ‘healthy’ German race and to stamp out ‘alien elements’ in the population. It viewed the ‘new Germany’ primarily in racial terms, with the Germanic people destined to become one of Nature’s highest species. To create this it was considered essential for the régime to root out those genetically undesirable elements within the German race in order to prevent biological degeneration. Their concept of racial ‘purity’ had its theory in the eugenic theories popular with sections of the scientific establishment in Europe, Britain and the USA. These suggested that human populations, like those in the animal kingdom, were subject to Darwin’s laws of natural selection. A healthy race, therefore, required the elimination of those who had physical or mental defects, or who introduced alien blood into the traditional racial stock. This pseudo-scientific view of racial policy was expressed by Hitler in his Mein Kampf. Once in power, he established an apparatus of laws and structures whose task was to cleanse the race.

On 26 July 1933, a Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny was announced, which allowed the state to compulsorily sterilise anyone deemed to be a threat to the biological health of the population. In 1936, a Reich Committee for Hereditary Health Questions was established to oversee the eugenic programme, and in the summer of 1939 Hitler formally approved the ‘euthanasia’ programme, to kill the physically and mentally handicapped. The state also proceeded against prostitutes, abortionists and homosexuals for ‘crimes against the race’. Altogether, about fifty thousand homosexuals were punished and five thousand were sent to concentration camps.

Persecution & Emigration of Jews, 1933-39:

Anti-Semitism also intensified. Many Jews were hounded from office or imprisoned in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933. In September, at the Nuremberg Party Congress, the anti-Jewish Laws were pronounced. The subsequent Reich Citizenship Law of 14 November 1935 defined who was and was not a Jew. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour published the same day forbade intermarriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans but also covered relations with blacks, Sinti and Roma. These laws linked the eugenic programme with anti-Semitism. Over the next four years, the Jewish community was gradually excluded from business and the professions, through a programme known as Aryanization, lost citizen status and entitlement to a number of welfare provisions.

The aim of the régime, at this point, was to encourage Jewish emigration About half of Germany’s Jews did emigrate between 1933 and 1939, forty-one thousand of them to Palestine under the terms of the Ha’avarah Agreement made with Zionist organisations in Palestine on the transfer of emigrants and their property from Germany. In an unlikely ‘collaboration’ with the SS, training camps were set up in Germany for emigrants to acquire the skills needed in their new life in Palestine. This process slowed down by the late 1930s as the receiver states limited further Jewish immigration. Following the London Conference (1939) on Palestine, the British Government published a White Paper which proposed a limit to Jewish immigration from Europe, restrictions on Jewish land purchases, and a program for creating an independent state to replace the Mandate within ten years.

This was seen by the Zionists as a betrayal of the mandatory terms, especially in light of the increasing persecution of Jews in Europe. In response, Zionists organised Aliyah Bet, a program of illegal immigration into Palestine. At the same time, anti-semitic activity in Germany intensified. On 9 November 1938, at the instigation of leading racists in the Nazi movement, a nationwide pogrom destroyed thousands of synagogues, prayer houses and Jewish businesses. In all, 177 synagogues were destroyed and 7,500 shops. Kristallnacht, the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, signalled the start of a more violent phase in Nazi racial policy.

The Bishop of Durham, Hensley Henson, was a reactionary on most matters. In this, he shared many views with his friend and neighbour in Auckland, the Marquess of Londonderry. He disliked Labour politicians, detested the unions and loathed Communism. But on the moral question of Fascism, he was a progressive and entirely opposed to the views of his neighbour, who believed he could influence British Foreign Policy in the direction of appeasing Hitler. Henson was one of the few establishment figures who, alongside Winston Churchill, took a stand against the Nazis in 1936. On 29 January, the same day that Charley and Edie Londonderry were beginning a tour of Germany, the Bishop began a series of outspoken attacks on Nazism and anti-Semitism which drew him to national attention. He wrote in his diary:

‘My speech on the persecution of the Jews has made me so prominent that I am afraid the Jews will be disappointed when they realise how little weight the Bishop of Durham carries in any quarter.’

Quoted by Denis Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance (see ‘Sources’ below), p. 77.

Also in his diary, he dismissed Londonderry’s visit to Germany as ‘utterly wrong-headed’. Hitler relied on his ambassador-at-large, Joachim von Ribbentrop, for advice on how to approach the British and bring about his longed-for Anglo-German alliance. It was Ribbentrop who arranged for the Londonderrys’ visit. Hitler and his diplomatic ‘expert’ were both convinced that Edward VIII and his friendly aristocrats such as the Marquess had great influence in government affairs, and could be used to shift British foreign policy towards a lasting settlement with Germany. They simply failed to comprehend the way that prominent figures in public life in Britain behaved. Ribbentrop even went so far as to suggest offering a substantial bribe to Churchill as a means of curbing his hostility to Germany. Ribbentrop and Londonderry were both snobs and shared an archaic belief in the power of the aristocracy to change the destiny of nations. During the visit, the Marchioness struck up a flirtatious relationship with Göring which she kept up by correspondence on returning to Britain. She sent him silver-framed portraits of herself and her daughter Mairi painted by the fashionable Hungarian society portraitist, Philip de Lászlo. The couple were treated to an excerpt from Wagner’s Ring and a propaganda film showing Germany’s armed forces, followed by a speech by Hitler which Londonderry described as ‘stirring’.

Hitler and Londonderry engaged in a two-hour conversation, during which the latter pointed out that in Britain there was rather less fear of Bolshevism than in Germany. Ribbentrop then insinuated himself into the conversation, referring to a report that ‘international Jews were making common cause with the Bolshevists’. Hitler, probably aware of how badly this subject would go down in Britain, did not respond to the prompt, and Londonderry was spared a tirade about ‘the conspiracy of international Jewry.’ Ribbentrop and Londonderry had talked a great deal during the visit, and the question of the Nazi attitude to the Jews was raised several times. Charley returned to the subject in his letter of thanks, writing of his concern that the British did not like persecution and warning ‘with the greatest diffidence’ that the Nazis were taking on a ‘tremendous’ force which would stand in the way of what they wanted to achieve. But he went on to excuse his impertinence by showing that, despite his warning, he did share Ribbentrop’s outlook:

‘I have no great affection for the Jews. It is possible to trace their participation in most of of the international disturbances which have created so much havoc in different countries.’

Quoted in Blakeway, p. 86.

Edie had shared similar sentiments in her correspondence with Goering, telling him that the British press was hostile to Nazism because it was ‘controlled to a large extent by Jews’. ‘Casual’ anti-Semitism of this kind was not restricted to members of the British aristocracy in the 1930s, neither was it to be found only among Conservatives. It was commonplace across most sections of society and pre-dated the rise of Fascism across the continent. Many people made casual remarks that today would be deemed quite unacceptable. Respected authors, even radicals such as George Orwell, and highly cultured liberal economists such as John Maynard Keynes and Sidney Webb littered their writings with disparaging remarks about the Jews, as did politicians across the spectrum, and some senior churchmen. But this was very different from the thought-through, committed and codified anti-Semitism of the Nazis, which Londonderry politely and hesitantly warned Ribbentrop did not go down well in Britain. Unattractive though his words to Ribbentrop were, at least he gave a warning about spreading these ideas and prejudices. Most of the stream of distinguished visitors to Germany that year never raised the subject of anti-Semitism, preferring to keep quiet and enjoy the hospitality.

One man who was not keeping quiet was the Bishop of Durham, Hensley Henson, who kept up his very public campaign on the subject. On 4 February, he sent a ‘rocket’ to The Times about the celebrations of the University of Heidelburg’s 550th anniversary, urging a boycott. The ancient university had driven out its Jewish professors, and Jewish students were also denied admission. He fulminated:

‘It cannot be right that the universities of Great Britain, which we treasure as the very citadels of sound learning, because they are vigilant guardians of intellectual freedom, should openly fraternise with with the avowed enemies of both.’

Quoted in Blakeway, op.cit., p.86.

Henson’s attacks on Nazi anti-Semitism usually brought a torrent of abusive letters from British anti-Semites and Fascists, and this time was no exception. As well as a private post bag, there were letters from Tory ‘grandees’ to The Times as well as angry letters in the German press attacking his stance. But to the Jews, he was a hero and he received letters from German Jews begging for help in getting their children out of Germany. Jews in America prayed for him, and in Britain, he became the unofficial champion of the Jewish cause. The day after the letter had appeared in The Times, Henson went to address the congregation of the West London Synagogue. The hall was packed with prominent British Jews, and the Bishop spoke strongly and movingly against the Nazi oppression for forty minutes. A few days later, he received a letter from Victor Gollancz, the left-wing publisher, enclosing a proof copy of The Yellow Spot, a book written for his influential Left Book Club about Nazi atrocities, asking him to write a preface for it. Henson was horrified by what he read, deeming it the most complete documentary record so far issued of the persecution of the Jews in Germany. The Bishop, however, was privately warned to steer clear of the project: the publisher was widely regarded as a Communist, a tool of the Bolsheviks. But Henson insisted on going ahead, saying that he could not go back on his word so he wrote the preface and sent it to Gollancz. He reflected in his diary…

‘… I seem to be driven into championing these persecuted Jews by the logic of events… who would not applaud that German who, in the interests of elementary models, killed Hitler? I should give them a Christian burial without hesitation.’

Ibid., p. 87.

In February 1936 Henson was most likely to have been the only bishop in Britain, and indeed the whole world, urging tyrannicide and denying the injunction of the sixth commandment. Eight years later, however, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor, was among those taking part in the failed attempt to kill Hitler at his headquarters in East Prussia. He paid for this with his life, along with his co-conspirators.

The German Bid for Cultural Hegemony, 1936-39:

On 16 August, the XIth Olympiad came to an end in Berlin with the closing ceremonies. Although more muted than the opening, the closing was nonetheless spectacular. The flag-carrying athletes marched the length of the arena, filled to capacity, before coming to a halt beneath the Olympic flame, which flickered brightly in the darkness in its steel brazier. After the President of the International Olympic Committee had spoken, the Olympic flag was slowly lowered from its high mast, distant cannons boomed a farewell salute and the Olympic flame was extinguished. Then, Hitler rose from his seat as the crowds stood, all saluting him, and sang Deutschland, Deutschland űber Alles. As the awe-struck British government observer, Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon wrote that ‘the Olympic Games, the great German display of power, and bid for recognition were over.’ But what had been a triumph for Germany was viewed with disquiet in London. Those, such as Chips Channon or Lord Rennell, who both returned singing the praises of Nazi Germany, failed to persuade their colleagues and peers.

Other distinguished guests followed them to Germany to attend the Nuremberg party rally and to pay homage to Hitler, ‘the greatest German of the age’ as David Lloyd George ‘dubbed’ him after his visit. But such views did not reflect those of the majority in Whitehall or Westminster. While many, if not most, appear to have sympathised with Germany’s claims about its harsh treatment after the First World War and had condoned Hitler’s move into the Rhineland in the spring of 1936, very few admired Fascism at home or abroad. The diarist and MP Harold Nicholson stayed with Channon a month after the Games, and found, to his disgust, that he and his wife had fallen under the ‘champagne-like’ influence of Ribbentrop. He heard the arguing ‘that we should let gallant little Germany glut her fill of the reds in the East and keep decadent France quiet while she does so.’ Nicholson told flatly ‘that this may be expedient but… it is wrong.’ He then gave the American-born Channon a short but stirring homily on British values and German faults:

‘We represent a certain type of civilised mind, and… we are sinning against the light if we betray that type. We stand for tolerance, truth, liberty and good humour. They stand for violence, oppression, untruthfulness and bitterness.’

Harold Nicholson, Letters and Diaries, 20 September 1936, p.273.

The Symbolism & Propaganda of the Spanish Civil War:

‘Lives there a man with soul so dead,

He was not, in the Thirties, Red?’

Meanwhile, the Spanish Civil War had broken out in July 1936. It was at once acknowledged as the showdown between the Left and Right in Europe, and acclaimed by both sides as the ‘great Crusade’ of their time. It was really a war about the fate of Spain, fought out by Spaniards to the bitter end. Major Franco raised the standard of rebellion against the legally-elected government of the leftist Popular Front, for the Catholic Church against ‘Godless Communism’. The British government once more fell into the pious position of ‘non-intervention’ and persuaded twenty-seven other governments to back this position officially, although many of them actually did intervene. In Britain, broad public opinion was at first bemused by the conflict, as news of atrocities on both sides was reported in the press. Most of the British popular press was on the side of the Republicans, but for the Conservative organs, they were always ‘the Reds’ or ‘the Communists’, though, in fact, they ranged through the whole spectrum, from anarchists to social democrats. The anarchist poet, Herbert Read, in his introduction to the Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936, described the uncertainty of the age in the following language:

In a few days the face of the world may change. Bugles blow, klaxons screech, an immense machine begins to move and we find ourselves separated, segregated, regimented, drafted into armies and navies and workshops. Bull-necked demagogues inject a poisonous propaganda into our minds and then the storm of steel breaks above us; our bodies become so much manure for an acid soil; and our ideas, our aspirations, the whole structure of our civlisation, becomes a history which the future may not even record.

Herbert Read (1936), Introduction to Surrealism. London: Faber & Faber.

The ‘storm of steel’ seemed to be breaking even as the Surrealist exhibition was coming to a close. In Spain, the Fascists bombed civilians, including refugees, and killed hostages; the ‘loyalists’ burned down churches and shot priests. From a distance, it was seen as a war of Communism against Fascism, so most British people didn’t know which side to support. The more politically committed were divided, polarised at first between the right, who tended to support the ‘nationalist’ rebel forces led by the self-promoted General Francisco Franco, and a broad spectrum of liberal and left-wing opinion, who backed the loyalist Republican forces. It was much more than a simple division between Left and Right, however. For many, especially young idealists, artists and writers, and members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the Spanish Civil War came to be seen as a titanic struggle, which the sculptor and volunteer Jason Gurney called, …

… a movement comparable with the the great Christian crusades of medieval times.

Jason Gurney (1974), Crusade in Spain. London: Readers’ Union, p. 17.

The young painter, Julian Trevelyan spoke for his generation when he wrote:

Until the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, there was an air of gentle frivolity about our life in London … for the next three years our thoughts and consciences were turned to Spain.

Quoted in Tom Buchanan (2007), The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press (‘Sussex Studies in Spanish History’).

It may have been in reality a battle between Spaniards, the complex origins of which went deep into the Spanish past, but for those young radicals watching from Britain, it was the first act of a drama that unless the Fascists were stopped, could lead to to the cataclysm of a pan-European war, that all dreaded. James Albrighton, a Communist medical student, came to the view that …

… unless we took action by not allowing the Fascists, and Nazis, to take control of Spain, then it would only be a matter of time … before they would unleash the same action in Europe.

James Albrighton, Diary (Marx Memorial Library)

James Albrighton left to fight in Spain that autumn. With the capital threatened, the Republican government called for help from abroad. Spurred on by their own government’s strict ‘neutrality’ and longing to have a crack at Fascism, British men and women on the left rallied to the cause. In England at least, they tended to be young intellectuals, often with an artistic or poetic bent. Idealism, combined with a desire for adventure, took them to Spain. They all wanted to fight Fascism, but their motivations were various: some saw the conflict in terms of democracy versus totalitarianism, others as a chance to stop the advance of Hitler and Mussolini and to prevent the development of a ‘world war in embryo’. Jason Gurney wrote:

‘… the war became a microcosm of all the ideological divisions of the time – freedom and repression, constitutional and arbitrary authority, nationalism and internationalism, the people and the aristocracy. Catholicism and Marxism … everybody saw Spain as the epitome of the particular conflict with which they were concerned.’

Jason Gurney, loc. cit., p.18.

In Britain, communication across the class gap in the Thirties was almost impossible. In Spain, in this respect, everything was suddenly simple. Most of the men who fought had brought themselves to see the war as a straight confrontation between good and evil. The British volunteers who arrived at the frontier left their socially self-conscious personalities behind and stepped across into Spain as men and brothers. It was like an absolution if the workers with whom they fought were Spanish because the tangle of conscience-stricken class feelings the British middle-class volunteers carried around with them was incomprehensible to such workers. Many of the volunteers were themselves workers, especially the hundreds of unemployed miners from South Wales, whose convictions had been built over generations of deprivation and struggle. Franco had had a promise of support from Mussolini before the war began and ideological allies had supplied him with arms since the beginning, in spite of the elaborate precautions of League’s Non-Intervention Committee. But when Italian troops moved in on Franco’s side, the Left redoubled its efforts to rally support for the Republicans. Writers and painters from all over Europe set to work as propagandists.

The first volunteers to go to Spain were no doubt motivated by their politics but also moved by a spirit of romantic adventure. In the early days of the conflict, those who wanted to fight had to make their own arrangements. For this reason, the pioneers were often from middle-class backgrounds; young men and women who could pay for their own passage and travel independently. The CPGB became more actively involved in recruitment when, later in the autumn, the International Brigades were formed. The first amateur ‘International Brigade’ arrived quite early in the conflict: among these volunteers, there were many others from different backgrounds and walks of life. They were joined by thousands of volunteers from over fifty other countries around the world.

Enormous numbers died on both sides of the conflict, many by execution. ‘Court martials’ were convened on the spot and men were shot in ‘batches’ within minutes. This even applied to men on the same side, and the term ‘Trotskyite traitor’ was a common verdict. It was the sight and sound of these fratricidal executions that revolted the ‘civilised’ western participants. They saw no real connection between this vindictive bloody mess and the social justice to which they were committed. What all of them found when they arrived on the battlefield was too often a sordid reality of disunity, inefficiency and poor equipment. The first ecstatic sense of catharsis did not long survive in most intellectual volunteers. The fact is that Spain turned out to be all too foreign for them: the feelings which drove Spaniards to massacre one another in droves turned out to have little or no relation to those which had inspired the idealism of the British Left, most of which was derived from their Protestant consciences. The British Labour movement has always owed more to Methodism than to Marxism. This Dissenting idealism was utterly alien to the Spanish fighting their private war.

Most of those departing in the late summer and early autumn of 1936 were already Communists. Among them were many young Marxists who often came from solidly middle-class backgrounds, converts to a rigid ideology that seemed to offer certainty in a world of encircling doubt and darkness. They were intellectuals, artists and writers. The poet John Cornford was the most celebrated of the early martyrs for the cause. After winning a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, he spent a year at the London School of Economics, where he came under the influence of Harold Laski, the prominent Marxist intellectual. By the time Civil War had come to Spain, though still only twenty, he had been a Communist for more than five years. He had been particularly moved by the plight of the unemployed in the distressed areas and the sight of the hunger marchers as they made their way to London. Cornford was completely taken up with the orthodoxy of Communism. Loyalty to the doctrines of Stalinist Russia meant, in 1936, buying into the show trials, terror and mass murder. He did so with equanimity.

There was little fighting in Spain at the end of August and the beginning of September. John Cornford’s principal duty was therefore to take charge of the guarding of defectors who came over from the Fascist lines. This gave him time for writing poetry, and his personal journey from misery and loneliness to the exhilaration of commitment and combat was distilled into three poems written in September 1936. He must have written them in his mind, perhaps while on sentry duty, and then pencilled them into his notebook. He made few alterations in the way that other war poets did. The first, copied into his notebook on 2 September, is called Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca. The poem’s penultimate verse encapsulates why so many British radicals saw Spain as the first battle in a looming revolutionary fight against not only Fascism but also the capitalist forces that had brought the lasting poverty and unemployment of the Depression years:

England is silent under the same moon,

From Clydeside to the gutted pits of Wales,

The innocent mask conceals the that soon,

Here, too, our freedom’s swaying in the scales.

O understand before too late,

Freedom was never held without a fight.

John Cornford, Understand the Weapon: Manchester: Carcanet New Press, p. 38.

The Storming of Huesca never took place. Instead, five days later John Cornford was taken sick with severe stomach cramps. He also had a high fever and bad diarrhoea, so his commander decided he should go to the hospital. He was carried on a truck to a nearby militia first aid post and from there to a hospital in Lerida. On 12 September, his thirty-seventh day in Spain, he was back in Barcelona, ill and exhausted. It was decided that he should return to Britain, recruit a band of volunteers and then return to Spain in three weeks’ time. Shortly before he departed for England, he wrote a final poem, ‘A Letter from Aragon’, which carried a message from a Spanish ‘comrade-in-arms’:

Tell the workers of England

This was not a war of our own making,

We did not seek it.

But if ever the Fascists again rule in Barcelona

It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.

John Cornford, loc. cit., p. 41

Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts & The Battle of Cable Street:

After the Olympics were over, the Mitford sisters, Diana and Unity, stayed in Germany in order to attend the Parteitag at Nuremberg, as Hitler’s honoured guests. During her stay, Diana reported to her lover, Sir Oswald Mosley, that Hitler had rejected her request for more secret funds for his British Union of Fascists (BUF). His movement had failed to prosper in the years since he founded it in 1932. It had not won a single parliamentary seat and, after the violence of the rally at Olympia in June 1934, membership had declined to a paltry five thousand. By the autumn of 1936, however, thanks to a national campaign and changed tactics, the number was on the increase once more and had climbed back to ten thousand. Mosley shamelessly copied Mussolini and Hitler, adopting their uniforms, policies and style of speech-making. To some extent, this plagiarism worked: thousands came to see him and see the spectacle of the rallies. He claimed that Fascism was ‘the only alternative to destructive Communism’ and adopted a mesmerising stare, which his son called his ‘lighthouse trick’. It gave him an air of fanaticism that some found funny but which many others found frightening, vain and repellent.

Mosley turned increasingly to the anti-Semitism of Hitler to energise the movement and gain the working-class support he needed. He encouraged the Fascist movement’s newspapers, Blackshirt and Action to publish crude anti-Jewish propaganda, mimicking the obscenities of Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer. In his speeches, he blamed Jewish City financiers for Britain’s economic problems, a sinister strategy which seemed to work. The East End of London was a particular target for Mosley and his thugs. He was stirring up racial hatred in this area by blaming the Jews for the high rates of unemployment, rent increases and poor wages. In 1936 there were about a third of a million Jewish people living in Britain, less than one per cent of the total population. About half of them lived in the East End, most of them centred on a densely populated area centred on Brick Lane. During the Depression years, the area had suffered badly; it was a pocket of poverty every bit as anything in the ‘depressed areas’ of south Wales and the north, with ‘the eternal slums, the litter, the filth, the futility of it all’ (Yesterday’s Witness: The Battle of Cable Street).

Most of the older generation spoke only Yiddish and lived in an enclosed community of crowded tenements, synagogues, baths and Kosher butchers. They tended to work in the clothing and furniture trades. They were an obvious target for the Jew-baiters of the BUF, who regularly smashed shop windows, and shouted racist insults during street meetings and marches through Jewish quarters: The Yids, the Yids, We’ve got to get rid of the Yids! Young Jews did not take these attacks with the forbearance of their parents and the official Jewish organisations that represented them. Even though they were British-born and British-educated, young Jews felt alienated and stigmatised by the anti-Semitism that flourished in British society. They saw Germany, bolstered by the success of the Olympic Games, and the Civil War in Spain, and feared that the Fascist contagion would soon spread to Britain. Many became Communists, seeing the Party as the most vehement opponent of Fascism. Others formed street gangs in self-defence. When, in the summer of 1936, the BUF announced a mass march through east London on Sunday 4 October, a coalition formed to confront Mosley’s blackshirts.

The older generation of Jews was dead-set against the organisation of counter-demonstrations. The Jewish Board of Deputies urged people to stay away and the Jewish Chronicle told readers in the East End to remain indoors and pull down the shutters. But their advice was ignored. The leaders of the Jewish community had lost control of their people. Labour to urged its people to keep off the streets; the party newspaper, the Daily Herald, argued that the best way to defeat Fascism was to ignore it. Even the Communist Party kept quiet at first since no official organisation wanted to be seen to be encouraging action that might well lead to law-breaking and violence. For most, however, taking to the streets to stop Mosley’s march was a spontaneous expression of hatred of Fascism. Spain was the constant refrain. For Charlie Goodman, an East End Jew who was not a Communist, it was the motivating factor:

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

Quoted in Peter Catterall (ed.), The Battle of Cable Street, Contemporary Record, vol. 8, no. 1, (summer 1994), p. 120.

Those planning to take part in the counter-demonstration were by no means all Jews or Communists. The bleak turn of events abroad was a mobilising force for thousands with a liberal view of the world, whatever their race or party affiliation, and halting Mosley in the East End had a wider significance, as Harold Smith, an eighteen-year-old office worker and activist, remembered: ‘we were young, enthusiastic, Spain was on, Hitler was on the march. It was a British contribution to stop Fascism.’ (Catterall, loc. cit., p. 125).

Back in the UK, at the beginning of October, Mosley’s Fascists stood in rank near the Tower of London, awaiting their leader, dressed in the black uniforms of the BUF. At first, the demonstration was peaceful enough. There was a diversion from a roof-top when a man holding a red flag gave a clinched fist salute. A few people shouted ‘Go to Germany!’ and ‘Down with Fascism!’ The were greeted with the usual chanting of ‘We must get rid of the Yids!’ Many of the anti-Fascists were shouting, ‘They shall not pass’, the war-cry of the Spanish Republicans defending Madrid. The story of the Battle of Cable street has been well told, and the legendary defenders of Whitechapel did not allow the BUF to pass that day. ‘Kettled’ by the police in Royal Mint Street, until the disturbances were over, the Fascists the had their demonstration ‘cancelled’ by the Police Commissioner, after consulting the Home Secretary. Mosley’s men marched ‘in orderly fashion’ to their headquarters in Westminster. For the Left, the Battle of Cable Street was a tremendous victory. For a brief moment, it brought together a fractured movement, divided on most of the major issues of the time. For many men, such as Frank Lesser, it provided the inspiration and motivation for them to go and fight Franco:

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

Quoted by Catterall (ed.), loc.cit., p.131.

Paths to European War, 1937-39:

Those, like Frank Lesser, who followed John Cornford to Spain to fight there suffered an apalling casualty rate. Altogether 2,762 British volunteers fought in Spain, some 1,700 were wounded and 543 died there, nearly all within the first year of the war. There was no break for those battling Fascism in Spain as 1937 dawned. Cornford himself, now a battle-worn warrior, had returned to Spain in October and received a head wound in the defence of Madrid. On 28 December, with his white bandage making him an easy target, Cornford was seen climbing up the brow of a hill to reconnoitre. He was shot in the head again, this time fatally. It was just one day after his twenty-first birthday. His body was never recovered. The death of the young poet reminded many of the loss of the previous generation’s brightest and best and presaged more to come. As one undergraduate at Oxford later recalled, they knew then that another world war was almost inevitable.

By the spring of 1937, there were thirty thousand Germans and eighty thousand Italians in Spain. The Germans, like the Italians, marched, but they also flew planes. The Republicans had no planes and depended on freelance pilots supplied by the Spanish government, to whom huge sums of money were paid. The deliberate bombing of civilians, many of them refugees in the Pyrenees, was regarded at first as an act of unimaginable barbarity, though it soon became a regular occurrence. When the Germans bombed the Basque town of Guernica for Franco and practically wiped it out, the whole world was outraged and Picasso’s picture went on tour all over Europe, including Britain.

The civil war was to continue until 1939, but most of the surviving British volunteers went home in 1937, having had a rough war: twenty-five per cent of them had been killed and more than seventy-five per cent of the survivors were wounded. Even as they disembarked from the ferry giving their clench-fisted salutes, it was clear that the result of the Great Confrontation between Good and Evil was a victory for Evil, and it was beginning to look like the rehearsal for something much worse. The Fascists had been greatly encouraged by their Spanish adventure. Hitler and Mussolini, now in the ‘Rome-Berlin Axis’, began a gigantic build-up of their armed forces. Hitler rightly interpreted the farce which Non-Intervention had turned out to be as a green light for his planned conquest of the continent, and after the bombing of Guernica, Goebbels’ propaganda machine went into a fury of action to try to persuade everybody that the Basques had blown up their own city in order to discredit Franco.

A 1939 poster charting the growth of Grossendeutschland (Greater Germany). Hitler, an Austrian, created a large Gemany in 1939, but it only lasted for six years.

In 1938-39, the areas absorbed into the Greater German Reich lost their distinct identity entirely. For Austria the loss of sovereignty brought some advantages in rising employment and production, but its status as the Ostmark in a large Germany diminished the influence and and prestige of its élite. Opponents of the Nazis before the Anschluss were sent to the concentration camp set up in 1939 at Mauthausen. Anti-Semitic legislation was applied at once, and thousands of Viennese Jews were dispossessed within months of the German takeover. The onset of Nazi repression and racism made a mockery of the plebiscite organised in Austria and Germany on 10 April 1938, when 99.07% of voters apparently endorsed the union of the two states.

The extensive Germanisation of the Austrian armed forces and public affairs created resentment among population, the majority of which had longed to be part of Greater Germany before 1938. The whole structure of the Sudetenland become part of the Nazi ‘Gau’ system and with the conquest of Poland in 1939, the Wartheland became another Party region in which a ruthless programme of Germanisation was imposed.

All over Europe, these German victories brought other Fascist movements into positions of power, keen to imitate the German example. Vidkun Quisling, pictured on the election poster below, had founded the Norwegian Nasjonal Samling in 1933, though it was not until 1942 that he was appointed Prime Minister. He said then:

“The new Norway must build on Germanic principles, on a Norwegian and a Nordic foundation.”

The Nazi Movement in the 1930s was part of a broader European political shift to the extreme right, so that during the war Germany was able to exploit this development by supporting puppet Fascist governments in occupied states, such as Norway, or winning the active collaboration of quasi-fascist régimes, often fuelled by the powerful wave of anti-Communist movements across the Continent which was also to produce thousands of volunteers from other European states to fight against ‘the Soviet enemy’.

Nazi Germany’s chief ally, from the ‘Pact of Steel’ of May 1939, was Mussolini’s Italy. The Italian dictator extricated himself from the Pact in 1939 but then joined the war on Germany’s side, and in the Balkans and North Africa he got German military co-operation. More than two hundred thousand volunteers joined the élite Waffen SS divisions at the beginning of the war, from all over Europe. These were formed late in 1939 and even included a small British Frei Korps.

General Franco, victorious in 1939.

General Franco won the Spanish Civil War earlier in 1939, having received aid from both Germany and Italy during that war, but he remained neutral in the 1939-45 war, though sympathetic to his fellow fascist dictators.

Hitler’s plan for the Nazification of the whole European continent were racial, political and economic. German planners saw Europe in terms of a strict hierarchy of races. A more privileged position place was to be accorded to the ‘Nordic’ peoples of Scandinavia and the Low Countries. The Slavic peoples of the east, however, were to be treated as inferior beings, fit only to labour for the new master race (Herrenvolk). The Latinate and Balkan peoples of southern Europe had an ambiguous place in Nazi long-term plans, as allies but not equals of the Nordic races. Under German pressure, much of Europe had fascist or pro-fascist régimes. For example, in Slovakia the clerical-fascist Slovak People’s Republic under Josef Tiso was installed in power in 1939, and was entirely subordinate to Berlin. The process of centralising continental finance and trade on Berlin began in 1940.

The giant Reichswerke Hermann Göring, a state-owned holding company, took over most of the captured heavy industry and its directors planned a massive programme of industrial development stretching from Germany to the Donetz Basin in Ukraine in order to shift the main weight of European industry to the Eurasian heartland ruled by Germany. Of course, all this was dependent on the successful invasion of the Soviet Union following Operation Barbarossa from June 1941.

The primary, racial element of the Nazification of Europe only became possible once the conquests had made it possible to export the biological politics of the Reich to the rest of Europe. This included the kidnapping of children deemed to have the necessary ‘aryan’ features to be brought up in the Reich, and the liquidation, through murder or neglect, of psychiatric patients and the mentally or physically disabled. But at its core was the opportunity to do something about the so-called ‘Jewish question’. The régime’s Jewish policy went through a number of stages after the outbreak of war.

At first, Hitler hoped for some kind of compulsory emigration, or ‘expatriation’, perhaps to the French island of Madagascar, which he saw as a potential tropical ghetto where Jews would die of disease and malnutrition.

While this option was not entirely closed in 1940 and 1941, the Nazi authorities began a programme of ghetto-building in Europe itself, with hundreds of thousands of Jews being transported across Europe to ghettoes in the east, where Jewish Councils administered them in uneasy collaboration with the German commands. Before the invasion of Russia itself, Hitler ordered harsh measures against ‘Jewish-Bolsheviks’ and thousands of Jews were were openly murdered and thrown into mass graves throughout eastern Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. In January 1940, Hitler had promised:

“The Jews shall be annihilated in our land”.

He wasn’t simply referring to the ‘Reich’, but to all the occupied territories. For the racist radicals in the Nazi movement, their whole conception of the war was one of racial struggle in which the Jewish people above all were the enemies of German imperialism. When Germany found itself ruling very large Jewish populations after its conquests in the east, the régime began to explore more extreme solutions to the ‘Jewish question’.

Although the precise dates at which the key decisions were taken have yet to be fully established, it was in July 1941 that that Göring ordered Heydrich to work out a ‘Financial Solution’, and Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of the rail transports of Jews in Europe, later recalled that Himmler told him at that thime that Hitler wanted “physical extermination”. The systematic murder of Jews began late in 1941, and was extended to the Sinti and Roma in 1942.

Decade’s End – Liberal Democracies & Totalitarian States:

By the end of 1937, there had been a large influx of refugees into Britain from continental Europe, mostly Jewish, but also many Basques, especially children evacuated through Bilbao to the south coast ports of England. The Jewish refugees were so large, and concentrated in London, that they were noticeable on the streets of the capital. The continental cut of their clothes made them conspicuous among its crowds. Despite the mythology which has developed around the legendary Kindertransport in recent years, in 1937 the ordinary refugees were unpopular with most Britons. The well-heeled London attitude seemed to be much the same as that of Duff Cooper, who once announced, ‘Although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews.’

At the other end of the social ladder, a well-known bus conductor on the Swiss Cottage run expressed his feelings by providing a ‘free translation’ and always announced the next stop bilingually: ‘Swiss Cottage – Kleine Schweizer-Haus’. In the 1970s, it was said of the Nazis that they were always most at war with the human mind, and the number of intellectuals among the refugees was disproportionately large; Britain’s universities gained, particularly in the sciences, though the newcomers had very little to do with the most shattering discoveries of the century: the atom had already been split at Cambridge and it was known to a handful of our best physicists that it might be possible to make an atom bomb.

The WLHB was led by Prunella Stack, under whose guidance groups of women in every town and village distorted themselves in orgies of physical training, rolling around in gymnasia and village halls, clad in shorts and satin blouses. The body, which had meant sex in the 1920s now meant health and hygiene. Sunbathing and nudism were also pursuits which, for some reason, had to be done in groups. These activities were derived from nature therapies devised by the Germans. But, on the whole, the effects of mass conditioning were very slight on Britain. In spite of Mosley’s Blackshirts and continuing Communist activity in the late Thirties, true mass thinking on the continental model never truly arrived, and except for football matches and community singing, the British remained, for the most part, a nation of eccentric individuals. This cultural difference with the mass movements taking place on the continent reflected itself in the use of language, as Cutforth himself concluded, writing from the perspective of the mid-seventies:

Mass-man had not arrived in the Thirties, and the life-style of the foetus, protected in the womb of the state from any outside shock, kept at an even temperature and supplied with adequate nourishment, which now seems pretty generally accepted as the high ideal towards which civilisation must make its way, would have seemed unbearable then. How man behaved in masses was only of interest to politicians and advertisers, but each man’s particularity – what made him different – was the cultural staple. …

Words celebrate differences: differences present choices. The chief concern, certainly of education and probably of life itself, was the making of choices between concepts … incorporated in the civilised tradition. The process was still going on and was the raison d’etre of the human race … Even Auden, who willed ‘the death of the old gang’, wrote that Time …

‘… worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives.’

Conclusion: The ‘D’ Words:

Therefore, in seeking to draw our attention to the ‘language’ of recent statements in the House of Commons and their historical parallels in 1930s Germany, Gary Lineker was reminding us of the lessons from history we should have learnt (in school) about the ways in which the Nazis were able to come to power in Germany and to build a system of mass indoctrination and persecution of ethnic minorities. It didn’t begin with mass shootings and gas chambers, though detention camps were an early feature. It began with words, labels like ‘liberal’, ‘decadent’ and ‘conspiracy’, words which are very much still with us today, often applied casually to groups in society by powerful politicians who know no history, or who have conveniently forgotten what they were taught. Lineker was not likening their recent utterances to the acts of genocide of the 1940s, but warning us that stereotyping and stigmatising refugees as ‘invaders’ is not part of the discourse of a ‘civilised tradition’. In doing so, he is a footballer in the tradition of George Curtis who when asked to make the Nazi salute in 1938, simply said ‘Count Me Out’. That’s called ‘Dissent’ and it rests within a long and honourable tradition in Britain. The other ‘D’ words, ‘Discrimination’, ‘Demonisation’, ‘Detention’ and ‘Deportation’, definitely belong to the decades of the 1930s and ’40s, not to the 2020s.


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

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

Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishers).

Keith Robbins (1988, 1997), Appeasement (second edition). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.


Orbán & Fidesz versus Soros, et. al: Whose Values? -The Continuing Confrontation.

Reblogged with new material from Zsuzsanna Szelényi’s new book on Orbán.

Andrew James

Extract from a Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the 31st Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp, 23 July 2022, Tusnádfürdő [Băile Tuşnad]:

We have managed to separate our big debate on the whole gender issue from the debate on EU money, and the two are now moving forward on separate tracks. Here too, our position is simple. We are asking for another offer of tolerance: we do not want to tell them how they should live; we are just asking them to accept that in our country a father is a man and a mother is a woman, and that they leave our children alone.

And we ask them to see to it that George Soros’s army also accepts this. It is important for people in the West to understand that in Hungary and in this part of the world this is not an ideological question…

View original post 10,254 more words


Where in the World is Wales? Celebrating St David’s Day, 1st March – a retrospective after forty years ‘in exile’.

St. David’s Day (Dydd Gwyl Dewi)  is the first of the four national days or patron saints’ days in the British calendar. Saint David (Dewi Sant in Welsh) is the only of them to actually hail from the country for which he was canonised. Yet we know very little of a factual nature about his life. Apparently, according to the canonical records, David and his followers lived quietly in Wales, didn’t eat meat and drank only water. He became a famous teacher and an important monk in The Celtic Church. He died in 589, probably on 1st March when, according to legend, a host of angels bore his spirit to heaven with great singing to his glory and honour.

Saint David’s Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thoughts of Wales from Abroad:

Wales celebrates its national saint’s day in 2023 in a mood of national self-confidence, despite its recent losses on the Rugby fields of the six nations. Hyfrydol! ‘Wonderful!’ as they say in Wales. The fact that, a decade ago, a third of the rugby team was born in England, with its captain hailing from King’s Lynn in Norfolk, and that my team Wolverhampton Wanderers FC used to have more Welsh international players in their first team than Cardiff or Swansea, hardly seems to matter. Neither should it, though it might have mattered in the past. There’s a renewed confidence about Wales which doesn’t simply come from returning exiles, sporting or otherwise. The Welsh Rugby team used to do better when the coal industry was booming, but by the mid-1980s, there was hardly any industry left to boom in the south Wales valleys, and, whenever the British economy caught a cold, Wales got influenza. When England got influenza, Wales got pneumonia, and the continuing general economic malaise also followed this pattern.

On 1st March 1979, a Referendum on the setting up of a Welsh Assembly saw the proposal defeated by a margin of four to one across Wales as a whole. As a student leader in Wales, then based in its capital, I was on the national steering committee of the ‘Yes’ campaign and, like my fellow Welsh students, was greatly disappointed by the result. It was not until nearly twenty years later (fifteen after I had left the country) and a decade after gaining my PhD from Cardiff University, that in 1998, a second Referendum led to a narrow ‘Yes’ vote. Since the elections that followed, there has been a Welsh Assembly meeting in Cardiff, with the Welsh Government having responsibility over ‘devolved matters’, including education and health care. In recent years, Wales has developed a strong government of its own, able to follow its own policies, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in response to the needs of its people, independently from the Westminster Parliament.

The South Pembrokeshire Coast.

All this seemed light years away when I left Wales four decades ago, having studied for two degrees, one in the North and one in the South. While studying for the second of these, I took a sabbatical year to represent its students as the full-time Cadeirydd (Chair) of UCMC (the National Union of Students, Wales). I also trained as a teacher in West Wales. During my eight years as a student there, I learnt Welsh, climbed all its mountains over three thousand feet and a few more, walked its coastal footpaths, lived in three of its fine cities and one of its oldest market towns, and visited many of its valleys. In addition, I watched its sporting successes, supped and sang in many of its pubs and worshipped in some of its chapels! Oh, and I managed to do a fair bit of discussing, debating, researching and writing along the way. In fact, I’m still writing about the country and its people today, albeit from a safe distance!

Yma o hyd! – Still here! Landscape, Peaks & People:

Wales is on the western side of the island of Great Britain, sharing a land border with England to its East and a sea border with Ireland to the West. The largest part of it is located along two great peninsulas, one in the south and the other in the north, with a long bay stretching between them. To the south is the Severn Estuary, now crossed by two road bridges, forming giant gateways into the country, at the end of which you used to have to pay a toll. Wales has so much natural beauty that some people call it ‘God’s own country’! It also has a unique and very beautiful language of its own, Cymraeg or Welsh, which some people call ‘the language of heaven!’ However, many other people would agree with the anglo-Welsh poet, Dannie Abse:

Pen-y-fan in the Brecon Beacons

Much of the country is covered by huge mountains, like those in Eryri (Snowdonia) in the north, which rise to over three thousand feet from the coast. You can see these best from the large island of Anglesey, off the north Wales coast. In other areas, there are more gentle hills and valleys, sometimes with thick forests and woods. There are a large number of rivers, including the River Severn, which begins in mid-Wales as a trickle of water and then flows into England. These fast-flowing streams from the hills and mountains were what powered the early development of industry in Wales, though it was the vast mineral wealth discovered beneath them over the centuries, especially coal which led to the country’s development into the powerhouse of the industrial revolution. These attracted millions of workers to the mining and iron-producing areas of south Wales, not just from rural Wales, but also from the neighbouring counties of England.

Present into Past:

The Welsh people have a strong sense of their own identity as the first British people, going back to Roman times. They are proud of their past, which is the subject of many songs and poems and is very evident in their unique traditions and customs, different from many of those found in England. The National Anthem, Hen Wlad fyng nghadau (Land of My Fathers) is full of phrases remembering the heroic figures who fought to maintain these independent traditions and customs, as well as their distinctive language, still spoken by more than one in five of the population of just under three million. The majority of the population lives in the industrial south of the country, especially along the coastal plain with its major cities. There are also major centres of population in the north, especially in the north-east, which also became a centre of heavy industry in the last two centuries. The people living in mid and northwest Wales still work in forestry and agriculture, as well as in many small industries and businesses which depend on tourism, since Wales remains one of the most popular destinations for holiday-makers from the English cities, as well as from countries further away.

Who were the Welsh? – ‘Celts’ into ‘Cymry’:

One of the earliest westward migrations in Europe, between about four thousand and two thousand BC, was made by peoples from Celtic tribes, speaking similar languages, whose descendants now live in Cornwall and Devon (‘Dumnonia’ – south-west England), the Scottish highlands, Ireland, the Isle of Mann, Brittany (in modern-day France, hence the name Grande Bretagne), Galicia (north-western Spain) and Wales. These tribes, speaking something close to Scots and Irish Gaelic, became natives of the British Isles long before the English. The people of Wales call themselves Cymry in Welsh (Cymraeg), meaning ‘fellow-countrymen’, the name of their country being Cymru.

When the Romans successfully invaded what they called Britannia in 43 AD, adding it to their Empire, they quickly conquered most of the lowland areas of what we know today as England. However, they found it more difficult to take control of the ‘Celtic kingdoms’ in the north and west of the island. Caractacus, Caradoc in Welsh, the king of the Catavellauni, put up fierce resistance in battle until he was forced to flee further north, where he was arrested and handed over to Emperor Claudius in 51 AD.  He was so impressed by Caractacus’ courage in defeat that he allowed him to live out the rest of his days as a free man in Rome. In 60 AD, the Roman Governer of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus attacked the Druids of Anglesey, the religious leaders of the Celtic tribes, and defeated the Rebellion led by Buddica (Boadicea). However, it wasn’t until 78 AD that the Roman conquest of Anglesey, and therefore their control of the western tribes, was completed by General Agricola.

However, large parts of mainland Britain were never fully conquered, including what we know today as Scotland, and the Romans never tried to invade Ireland. That’s why, to this day, the Scots and Irish Gaelic languages contain very few words used by the Romans, in their Latin language. The forts built by the occupying army, including Caerleon and Caerdydd (Cardiff), were small pockets of Roman culture in uncertain or hostile territory. The native population continued to live much as it had always done. Some Britons traded with the forts and even settled there, but most ignored the Romans, whose main interest was extracting mineral wealth from the hills. They did little to establish towns, which slowly grew around their forts, and most of the native population stayed on their farms. When the Romans began to withdraw from Britain in AD 410, four centuries of trade and settlement had left its mark on the remaining tribes, including their languages, which became Romano-British, but within a generation, they separated into competing tribal kingdoms once more.

Cymraeg is all that remains of a written language, Brythonic, which was spoken and written by the Romano-British who lived in several kingdoms from Cornwall to Cambria (Wales), to Cumbria (northern England) and on to Strathclyde (Scotland). It is from the last of these territories that the earliest known writings were made, dating from the sixth century. Welsh is very different from Scots and Irish Gaelic, but is similar to Breton, so much so that the traditional Breton onion sellers who used to bicycle through the Welsh valleys in the summer were able to communicate with their Welsh-speaking customers.

A Breton onion-seller in South Wales in the 1970s.

Britons, Saxons and Vikings:

It was the invading Saxons of the sixth century who used their word wealas to describe the people whom they made ‘foreigners’ in their own land, though the idea that there was a mass migration into the west is a myth. The chieftains and warriors may have retreated to their forts in the hills and mountains, but recent genetic tests have shown that most of the farmers remained on their land and mixed with the newcomers, gradually adapting to Saxon manners, customs and languages, and adopting some of them. The process was two-way. Many British place names continued to be used in the Saxon-settled territories, including Afon or Avon, for ‘river’ and cwm or combe, for ‘valley’. The placenames along the current border are a peculiar mix of Latin, Romano-British, Old Welsh, West Mercian (Old English), Norman French, Middle English and ‘early modern’ Welsh. However, in what became the Mercian territories and then the ‘marches’, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ languages eventually overwhelmed the native British tongues as ‘lingua franca’ (the language of trade).

The gentler slopes of the Cambrian mountains along the Anglo-Welsh border.

The Cambrian mountains did give the retreating ruling families and their scribes a means to protect their language and culture from Anglo-Saxon influence for centuries. Despite the construction of a dike, or ditch, by the Mercian King Offa, mainly to discourage sheep-rustling, he was more interested in securing his dominant position over the other Saxon kingdoms, and the Welsh were more at risk from attacks from the sea, by Irish and Scandinavian raiders. But British monks recorded stories about the heroic battles fought by chieftains against the pagan Saxons. One of these British heroes, Artorius, or Arthur, became the basis for the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and the legends of his magician Merlin (Myrddin). These monks also wrote down the stories and legends connected with the British saints, including David and Patrick.

There was no common form of ‘Aenglisc’ at this time, but rather three different Saxon languages or dialects, Northumbrian (the root of ‘Scots’ English), Mercian (which eventually became the dominant form), and West Saxon. It wasn’t until around AD 1,000 that the word Englaland began to be used, though the Anglii (Angles) themselves were a minority group among the settlers, as were the Jutes who settled in Kent. The Welsh word for the English people is Saeson or Saxon, and the English language is Saesneg. A fragment of an early Welsh folk song tells of a young man going “with a leaden heart” to live in “the land of the Saxons.” However, the Anglo-Saxon languages were far from evolving into a standardised, written language, even in the time of Cnut, the Danish King of England, and Edward the Confessor. Latin, together with Christianity, had been brought into the Saxon kingdoms through Aidan’s mission to Northumbria by multilingual British monks like Cuthbert, Cedd and Ceadda (Chad) by the mid-seventh century, and later by Paulinus through Kent in the seventh century. It remained the standard written language throughout the British Isles.

Who Was Dewi Sant?

A stained glass depiction in Saint David’s Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

David was born around the year 500, probably the illegitimate son of Sandde, a famous prince, and Non, who was also a Cymric saint. He grew up in the Christian faith and became an important churchman, taking part in great conferences and assemblies. He became the Primate, or Archbishop, of Wales. When he was thirty he founded a monastery at Glyn Rhosyn which was recognised as the centre of the Church in Wales. This became St David’s (Ty Dewi – ‘David’s House’) where the small cathedral city now stands, the smallest city in the UK. He founded many churches throughout Wales, fifty-three of which bear his name. By the time of the Norman Conquest of England, St David’s had become an important centre of pilgrimage. Little else is known of David himself, except that he became Primate or Archbishop of the western British Church, then independent from Rome, decades before the Augustinian mission to the English finally succeeded in gaining footholds in Kent, Sussex and Wessex.

David was the only one of the four patron saints of the four countries of the British Isles to be born in the country he represents, although it was then part of a much larger post-Roman British territory, stretching from Cornwall to Strathclyde. The rugged and picturesque Pembrokeshire Coast hosts many small chapels, like St Govan’s (above), dedicated to the Celtic saints whose Christianity predated, by centuries, the arrival of the Papal envoy in Canterbury to convert the pagan Saxons. On a two-stage personal pilgrimage around the coasts of Pembrokeshire in the late seventies, I camped by the chapel dedicated to Non, David’s mother, looking out to Ireland and the Atlantic. David was born near here in the time of the legendary Arthur, the early sixth century, a time when the Welsh still controlled much of the west and north of Britain, including modern-day Scotland, the north, midlands and south-western counties of England and, of course, Wales itself.

More than a century before David, his predecessor Patrick, was also a Welsh monk who introduced Christianity to Ireland. He was, in fact, an escaped British slave who was born in late Roman times, in about AD 389, the son of a small landowner at Banwen in Morgannwg (modern-day Glamorgan), who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen a band of Irish raiders captured him and took him back to Ireland where he was made to look after the sheep of an Irish chieftain in Antrim. It was during these six years of captivity that he decided to become a monk, escaping by ship to the coast of Brittany. There he trained in a monastery, returning to his home in Britain, before beginning his mission to Ireland. Returning to Auxerre, he was ordained there, before sailing back to Ireland to commence his legendary mission.

The surviving stories about David, many of them in the Welsh tradition, are, as they say, the stuff of legend. Wells and mountains were said to spring up at his feet and he miraculously cured the blind, the lame and the sick. According to one of these legends, St David’s spirit was taken up to heaven by a host of angels amid great singing to his glory and honour, on 1st March 589. According to the history of the next fifteen hundred years, his people have never stopped singing since, nor could anyone stop them, not even Edward Plantagenet.

As with Patrick, many legends have grown up around the name of the Welsh patron saint. One of them tells how when David and his monks first arrived in the Glyn Rhosyn area, it was terrorised by a bandit named Boca. He was overcome by David’s personality and became converted to Christianity, although it took David longer to convert his wife! Another story tells of how when David prayed for fresh water a well sprang up at his feet. This useful miracle was repeated at several other sites, including Ffynnon Feddyg. A further tale describes a hill rising up under the saint so that all could see and hear him preach. The name of the village where this happened, Llanddewibrefi, also bears his name: The Church of St David.

Map B illustrates the ‘progress’ made in the settlement of eastern Britain by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons between the fifth and seventh centuries. Map C shows how two key battles, at Deorham and Chester, cut off and isolated Britons into the territories of Cornwall, (North) Wales, Cumbria and Strathclyde.

By the mid-eighth century, the three ‘British’ heartlands of the ‘Cymry‘ or ‘Compatriots’ had become separated by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, to whom they had become known as the ‘Waleas’, the ‘foreigners’ in their own land. Despite later Norman incursions following the Conquest of England, St David’s was still no more than a village in population, and is still the smallest city in Britain, due to the Cathedral which stands there today, dedicated to the patron saint. It then became a popular place of pilgrimage from the late eleventh century, before the Edwardian Conquest of Wales at the end of the thirteenth century.

When was Wales? Norman Lords, Princes and People:

Following their Conquest of England from 1066-80, The Norman kings placed the security of the Welsh border in the hands of ‘marcher’ barons who were allowed to conquer new lands in Wales. They built castles and monasteries in south Wales, giving ‘manors’ for rent to both Anglo-Norman and Welsh tenants. They encouraged Anglo-Norman settlement of the countryside and created new, fortified towns such as Swansea. English place names were used for new settlements, such as Fernhill and Oxwich, which grew next to Welsh villages. Meanwhile, Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, expanded his territory into Powys. However, the Norman kings left the native rulers of north and south Wales in place, provided they paid him homage. However, when Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed by the Normans in 1093, they established lordships over Gower, Kidwelly and Pembroke.

Llywelyn the Great, or Fawr (1172-1240) was a Prince of Gwynedd in north Wales and eventually ruled over most of north and mid-Wales. Through a combination of war and diplomacy, he dominated Wales for forty years. He was the sole ruler of Gwynedd by 1200 and made a treaty with King John of England that year. Llywelyn’s relations with John remained good for the next ten years. He married John’s natural daughter Joan in 1205, and when John arrested the Prince of Powys in 1208, Llywelyn took the opportunity to annex southern Powys. In 1210, Anglo-Welsh relations deteriorated, and John invaded Gwynedd in 1211. Llywelyn was forced to seek terms and to give up all lands east of the River Conwy in the north but was able to recover them the following year in alliance with the other Welsh princes. He allied himself with the barons who forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. By 1216, he was the dominant power in Wales, holding a council at Aberdyfi that year to apportion lands to the other princes.

A view of Conwy Castle on the cover of my Professor, Gwyn A. Williams’ popular book.

Following King John’s death, Llywelyn concluded the Treaty of Worcester with his successor, Henry III, in 1218. During the next fifteen years, Llywelyn was frequently involved in fights with Marcher lords and sometimes with the king, but also made alliances with several major powers in the Marches. The Peace of the Middle (March) in 1234 marked the end of Llywelyn’s military career, and the agreed truce of two years was extended year by year for the remainder of his reign. He maintained his position in Wales until his death in 1240 and was succeeded by his son Dafydd ap Llewelyn.

If Wales can be described as a nation in any sense in the late thirteenth century, it was certainly a divided one, divided into four parts; the marcher lordships established by the Anglo-Normans, mainly along the border and in the southern coastal plain, and the native princedoms of Gwynedd in the north, Deheubarth in the west, and Powys in the middle of the country. There was no overall kingdom, and the rivalry between the three princedoms was a cause of increasing concern to the English crown. So, in 1267, Henry III recognised Llewelyn ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd as ‘prince of Wales’, the overall ruler of the three native princedoms. However, Llewelyn did not want to accept the overall right of the Norman ‘Plantagenet’ kings to control Wales. He took advantage of their problems with the barons to expand his territories at the expense of both the marcher lords and the rival Welsh princes.

So in 1277 Edward Plantagenet began a campaign to bring Llewelyn under control. Marching his army into north Wales, he quickly seized Flint, Rhuddlan and Deganwy, forcing Llewelyn into a negotiated peace. He was forced to surrender these lands between Chester and the River Conwy, which Edward then used to create a new series of powerful marcher lordships. Edward also imposed a crippling fine on Llewelyn, which he had no chance of ever raising. Edward then waived this fine, demonstrating the control that he now had over the prince of Wales. However, in 1282, his brother Dafydd began a revolt against the Plantagenets, annoyed by his lack of reward for supporting the English crown. Edward then launched a full-scale war of conquest from the lands he now controlled in the north. He took control of the whole coast, including Anglesey, pushing Llewelyn into Snowdonia. Attempting to break out to the south, he was ambushed and killed at a bridge near Builth Wells. Edward’s troops then pushed into Gwynedd, capturing and brutally executing Prince Dafydd in June 1283.

Castles – Places to Show off, or Symbols of Oppression?

From the beginning of the twelfth century, the Norman lords had begun to build permanent stone castles. Kidwelly Castle (below), like Llansteffan in modern-day Carmarthenshire, began as a walled enclosure, to which round towers and an outer wall were added in the thirteenth century and a large gatehouse was added after 1300.

King Edward saw castles in the eastern Mediterranean during his crusade (1270-2) and introduced the ‘concentric’ design into Britain in the 1280s. It relied on a ring of walls and towers around an open bailey, or courtyard, with a strengthened gatehouse. His Welsh castles at Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech are classic examples of this design. As well as encircling Wales with these castles, some, like Conwy, provided a good way of setting up new towns under his control, within the outer walls. The Conquest was then completed by the remarkable string of castles which also included Flint, Rhuddlan, Beaumaris on Anglesey, Criccieth, Aberystwyth and Builth. They stood both as bastions of military might and symbols of Plantagenet rule. However, the cost of his nine castles in Wales almost bankrupted him.

Caernarfon Castle.

Harlech Castle

The military occupation of Gwynedd was followed up by a constitutional settlement in 1284 imposing the Statute of Wales, which placed the former principality was placed under the direct jurisdiction of English law. Further revolts were ruthlessly put down by 1295. The King then went on a great circular march through Wales to reinforce his authority and then made his eldest son Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle in 1301. This was a reminder that the rule of the native princes was over, and the only important Welsh family to keep their lands were the former rulers of Powys. Other Welsh lands were ‘parcelled up’ and granted to English lords. Wales has remained a ‘Principality’ within an English kingdom ever since, though gradually including all the lands west of the border with England until the inclusion of Monmouthshire (Gwent) as late as 1973. The former Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, was invested with the title in Caernarfon Castle in 1969, despite attempts by extreme nationalists to disrupt the ceremony.

A poem in Hungarian, written by János Arany shortly after the Austrian Empire’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, Walesi Bárdok (‘The Bards of Wales’) drew its inspiration from this determination of the Welsh to maintain independence from the invading Normans, whose King Edward built a ring of the castles to control the country. The poem tells of the refusal of the bards to sing Edward’s praises at Montgomery Castle after his invasion of the country and the slaying of Llewelyn, the last Welsh-born prince of Gwynedd and Powys, and of how Edward, according to legend, had every last one of them put to death as a punishment.

Symbols of Wales – The Red Dragon, Leeks & Daffodils:

The dragon is a popular mythical beast in the folklore of the British Isles as a whole. In fact, the first dragon standard to be flown in battle, according to dark-age records, was the white dragon of the first Saxons to land on the eastern coasts of Britain around AD 450. The Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) of Wales comes from the Mabinogion, the cultural epic of Wales, which tells the story of the battle between the white dragon and the red dragon for control of Britain. According to the tale, the pained shrieks of the fighting dragons caused women to miscarry and crops to fail. The British king Lludd consulted his wise brother Llefelys, who told him to dig a pit and fill it with mead (a strong liquor made with honey).  When the dragons drank the mead and fell asleep, Lludd imprisoned them both in the pit.

The story is continued by the ninth-century monk, Nennius, in his Historia Britonum. He tells of how, centuries later, King Vortigern tried to build a castle at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia, but each night the walls collapsed. A boy who grew up to be the wizard Merlin told the king about the two Dragons, who had continued their battle underground. The dragons were released and continued their fight until the Red Dragon triumphed. Later, in his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155) wrote that this victory was a sign of the coming of King Arthur, also known as Arthur Pendragon. In Welsh, Pen Draig means ‘Chief Dragon’. Nennius also wrote about the legendary Artorius and his battles against the Saxons, in which he halted the Saxon advance at the Battle of Badon Hill in about AD 515.

Over the next thousand years following the Arthurian ‘period’, many British kings used the dragon standard. The legendary seventh-century king Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd used the Red Dragon as his standard. Alfred The Great flew the White Dragon when his army defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington in 878. Both Aethelstan and Harold II also flew it, and in 1191 Richard the Lionheart, who popularised the ‘long cross’ of St George, is also said to have carried a dragon standard on the Third Crusade. Henry V flew the Dragon standard at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, in which large numbers of Welsh archers fought. Henry VII, who claimed Cadwaladr as his ancestor, raised the Red Dragon on the background of Tudor white and green colours, giving rise to the Welsh flag still flown today.

Apart from the mythical dragon, Wales has two national emblems – the leek and the daffodil. The leek is a herb of the onion family, and it was worn as a battle emblem by the Britons against the Saxons, and again by Welsh soldiers at Poitiers in the Hundred Years’ War. In legend, the leek was said to have the property of carrying its wearer, uninjured, through battle. It became the official emblem of the Welsh Guards Regiment, worn on St David’s Day. Over recent decades the leek has given way to the daffodil, seen as David’s flower, appropriately blooming around 1st March. St David’s Cross, yellow on a black background (see below), is paraded through Welsh cities and towns on St David’s Day. The name ‘daffodil’ is a corruption of Asphodel, which grew on the banks of the Acheron in ancient Rome, delighting the spirits of the dead. It also grew, according to legend, on the Elysian fields, which may explain why they are placed on graves. In Wales, if you are the first to find a daffodil in bloom in your village on St David’s Day, they say that you will have more gold than silver for a year.

St. David’s Day is not a holiday, but there are parades, special concerts and competitions, called eisteddfodau, all over the country on this day, especially in schools, when children still dress in national costume (largely an invention of two centuries ago, as shown in the postcard picture below from about the same time).

Past into Present – The Dragon’s Two Tongues:

Even at the beginning of the industrial revolution, the vast majority of the people still spoke Welsh. Despite the anglicising effect of intermarriage, education and industrialisation, the persistence of the Welsh language and culture is a remarkable story. At the beginning of the twentieth century, two-thirds of the population was bilingual, and at its end, one-fifth claimed to be Welsh speakers. This has declined slightly, according to the recently-published 2021 Census, possibly due to the death of the last monolingual speakers. At the beginning of this century, Welsh is used in education, with every child learning it to sixteen, and it has equal status with English in law and administration.

Road signs throughout the country are bilingual and the Welsh television channel is popular and successful. In the 1980s the Conservative Government, so often hated by nationalists, made it its policy to support and subsidise the Welsh language. By contrast, English writing in Wales did not receive the same level of subsidy through the Welsh Arts Council. The strength of the Welsh language culture has also influenced the development of the Anglo-Welsh language and culture. Actors such as Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Ioan Gruffudd and Michael Sheen have a rich, spoken English which combines the perfect accuracy of standard, or received pronunciation, with the fluency of melody, lilt and resonance supplied by Welsh-language intonation, with rounded vowels where most ‘Anglo-Saxon’ actors would flatten them.

Welsh also has a different word order, with the noun coming before the main verb, or the adjective coming after the noun. For example, a woman from the valleys, talking about a young man who had died, said “Pity it was that he died so early”. This was a direct translation of the Welsh structure into English. The (ungrammatical) use of the question tag ‘isn’t it?’ or the phrase ‘look you’ are further examples of direct translation in colloquial Welsh speech. Some Welsh words are used directly in English, like ‘cariad’ for ‘darling’ or ‘love’ and ‘cwtch for ‘hug’ (although the ‘ch’ phoneme in Welsh is a ‘guttural’ sound, as in German). You can also tell an Anglo-Welsh writing style by their use of hyperbole (exaggeration). This stems from the tradition of Welsh bards (poets) who recited to the warriors to work up their ‘hwyl’, or ecstasy, before going into battle.

A Nation Once Again? – The Tudor Revolution in Governance:

A century after the Plantagenet Conquest of Wales was complete, a Welsh nobleman named Owain Glyndwr lost a legal dispute with an English marcher lord. He turned to violence and his immediate supporters declared him to be Prince of Wales since he was descended from the princes of Powys. In June 1401 he defeated an English Army in an open battle and by 1404 had succeeded in driving the English lords out of Wales. He then set up an independent Welsh Parliament in Machynlleth in mid-Wales. In 1407, Prince Henry, later to become Henry V, began the re-conquest of Wales. Using the English Navy to stop French ships from bringing guns to the rebels, he took the towns and castles back one at a time, clearing the surrounding lands of Glyndwr’s supporters before moving on to the next town. But in 1412 Glyndwr led a successful ambush of the English Army at Brecon. However, he then vanished into the hills, never to be seen again. For these brief years under his rule, Wales became a truly independent country for the first and only time in its history. Still, the legends surrounding him inspired many subsequent ‘followers’ to campaign for a distinct political identity.

A direct descendant of Glyndwr, Henry Tudor, finally defeated the Plantagenets at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and again at Stoke in 1487, ending the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII was Welsh-speaking, as were his two sons, Arthur and Henry. With his accession to the English throne, and with his son Arthur as Prince of Wales, it looked like the Welsh were on top again. One observer wrote that they…

“… may now be said to have recovered their former independence, for the wisest and fortunate Henry VII is a Welshman”.

However, Wales had been ruled for centuries by the Kings of England with no clear legal basis. It wasn’t until the Tudors that the relationship was codified. Between 1535 and 1542, Henry VIII passed a series of laws that established a formal system of government over Wales. The local lords put in place under the Plantagenets were stripped of their powers, which were passed to the government.  The marcher lordships were abolished, but Shrewsbury remained, in all but name, the administrative capital of the whole ‘region’ of the united realm of the former principalities and marcher lordships. The Council of the Marches, meeting there, was responsible for maintaining law and order both in Wales and the English border shires until it was abolished in the 1640s. Then, for the first time, Welsh MPs were able to sit in the Westminster Parliament, and the border was legally established and defined. Laws that discriminated against the Welsh were repealed and the counties of Wales were put on an equal basis as those of England. However, under the Act of Union of 1536, English became the official language to be used in all legal and government documents, though the majority of the people remained monolingual Welsh speakers.

However, one of the results of these changes was that the language of the ruling classes became English, but they at least ensured that justices of the peace and the men running the shires were Welsh, so that Wales was not simply seen as an extension of England. Even Monmouthshire, which was fully incorporated into England by the Act of Union, was eventually returned to Wales in 1972. Previous to the Act of Union, there were frequent border disputes like the one that led to the Glyndwr Rebellion. The Welsh were often falsely accused of stealing cattle or sheep, as in the English nursery rhyme, Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef. No doubt as many Welsh sheep got transferred across the indistinct border after a night raid in the opposite direction across Offa’s dike.

Like her father, Elizabeth Tudor was also brought up speaking Welsh, and, as Elizabeth I, was the last monarch to have learnt the language. She also had several important Welsh scientists, like Dr John Dee, scholars and explorers at her court. Her family’s ancient Celtic Christian roots had become even more important after the Reformation. The Pope had excommunicated her, and she was constantly threatened by plots, rebellions and invasions. She claimed her right to be Supreme Governor of the Church through reference to the saints and chieftains of the ancient Britons, chronicled by Geoffrey of Monmouth and others before him, and the coronation oath still contains this reference. The Welsh adopted Jesus College, Oxford, founded in 1571, and the Inns of Court in London as the ways to complete their education.

Members of the Welsh elite were enthusiastic Renaissance people, building houses and art collections comparable with collections anywhere else in Europe. They were also keen supporters of the Reformation. Oliver Cromwell was so named because his ancestors had changed their name from Williams during the Reformation. Richard Williams was the grandson of a Welshman who had followed Henry Tudor’s red dragon standard to the Battle of Bosworth and then settled at Putney, where he married his son Morgan to the niece of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister. Richard helped his uncle-in-law to suppress the monasteries and was rewarded with former church lands in Huntingdonshire. He took his uncle’s name, and three generations later, in 1599, Oliver Cromwell, God’s Englishman, was born in a townhouse in Huntingdon. He might perhaps have been more accurately known as God’s Welshman. 

The Cromwells were certainly strong admirers of Good Queen Bess, especially when the Scottish Stuart kings became unpopular, though they continued to be guided by the Welsh Cecil dynasty. Robert Cecil uncovered (perhaps initiated and manipulated) the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, then allowed King James to take the credit, increasing his ‘poll ratings’. It is easy to forget that Scotland was widely seen as a hostile, foreign country when Oliver Cromwell was growing up and for the rest of the century. It only became united with England, Wales and Ireland in 1707 and even after the death of Anne, many Scots remained loyal to the Stuart ‘pretenders’, becoming ‘Jacobites’. Oliver’s favourite daughter was named Elizabeth, no doubt after her mother, but also after ‘Queen Elizabeth, of famous memory’.

Bishop Morgan’s translation of the Bible into Welsh secured the future of the language.

The Protestant Reformation took root in Wales, with Welsh translations of the creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer coming out as early as 1547. These were soon followed by translations of the Prayer Book and the Scriptures. The first Bible in Welsh was published in 1588 and contributed greatly to the survival of the Welsh language. Catholicism survived, with St Winifred’s Well at Holywell in north Wales remaining an important shrine and centre of pilgrimage to today. Although most of the Welsh people enthusiastically embraced Protestantism, it was Nonconformity and Methodism which by the eighteenth century became more popular than Anglicanism. There was a close relationship between literacy and Methodism in the latter part of the century. In Caernarfonshire, those areas with the highest attendance at Gruffydd Jones’ circulating schools between 1741 and 1777 were also those with the most Methodist chapels by 1800.

Though it was excluded from administration, the position Welsh gained as the language of religion helped to ensure its survival. Grammar School education was in English, but basic literacy in Welsh became widespread in the eighteenth century, due largely to the efforts of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, Gruffydd Jones and others, who sought to ensure that the people could read the Bible for themselves. A growing market for Welsh language books led to the establishment of the first Welsh printing presses in the early eighteenth century. Welsh medieval texts were collected and preserved. This enabled a Europe-wide rediscovery of the Celtic past and identification with its Celtic past helped the Welsh to assert their different identity from the English.

Interest in the bardic traditions was reawakened in the late eighteenth century and, under the direction of Iolo Morganwg, eisteddfodau re-emerged as vehicles for regional and national cultural activities. Druidism, long extinct, was revived through colourful if invented, ceremonies. Celtomania went some way to convincing the English that the Welsh had something to offer the partnership. Until the mid-nineteenth century Wales remained an agrarian country, specialising in cattle-rearing, dairy products and cloth manufacture. The countryside was gradually enclosed and deforested, but settlements remained small and scattered, with farmers maintaining upland summer houses and lowland winter homes. Market and textile-manufacturing towns in South and mid-Wales became increasingly important in the eighteenth century.

People of the ‘Abyss’ – The Proud Valleys:

The history of Wales from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century was dominated by the growth and decline of the iron, steel and coal industries, and their social and economic consequences. Due to the demand for Welsh steam coal to power the industrial revolution and Britain’s expanding Empire, new and vibrant communities, with a unique lifestyle and culture, grew up in previously unpopulated areas of the two coalfields in the north and south of Wales. At its high point in 1913, the coal industry employed a quarter of a million men and women.

The valleys of south Wales span out across the hinterland from the coastal ports and cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea like the fingers of two linked, outstretched hands, from Monmouthshire to Carmarthenshire. The best-known valleys are those of the Rhondda Fach and Fawr (‘little’ and ‘great’) in central Glamorgan. By 1906, people were moving into these valleys at a rate second in the world only to those arriving in the northern United States. They mainly came from rural Wales so that Wales as a whole retained its Welsh population at a time when other parts of Britain and Ireland were experiencing mass emigration. As this supply of cheap labour began to dry up, many workers moved in from the English side of the River Severn and its estuary, especially from Somerset and Gloucestershire, both miners and farm-workers. Long terraces of houses were built in rows along the steep hillsides overlooking the pits and colliery winding towers.

A model Welsh miner by John Upton of Gowerton, c. 1980.

These were societies dominated by one industry, Coal, though there were also iron and steel foundries at both the ‘heads’ and ‘feet’ of the valleys. From the age of eleven or twelve, then fourteen, most boys started work with their fathers underground, working eleven-hour shifts. They were called ‘trappers’, because they would take care of the doors on the tramways, opening and closing them for the horse-pulled trams full of coal, while their fathers would cut the coal at the coal ‘face’ using picks, loading the trams using shovels. They were called colliers. My maternal grandfather was one, working in the smaller Warwickshire coalfield, where the coalface was more accessible, and conditions were generally better.

Sometimes the boys would push or pull the trucks themselves, so they were called ‘hauliers’. Their wages were often decided by how much coal they and their fathers could get to the surface by the end of each shift.

Map showing the extent and topography of the South Wales coalfield.

Often the seams of coal were very thin and could only be worked by the colliers lying on their sides, and conditions were hot, ‘sticky’ (humid) and wet, with water running through the rock. At the same time, there was a lot of dust, from both the coal and the rock, so miners developed, and died early, from the effects of lung diseases like pneumoconiosis and silicosis. The amount of dust in the atmosphere would sometimes result in serious, spontaneous fires. Gases were released from the rock and, since explosives had to be used to blast open new faces, there were frequent disasters in which hundreds and thousands of miners were killed. The worst disaster happened at the Senghenydd Colliery in 1913, when 430 colliers were killed. Even a spark from the tools used was enough to cause a major explosion, and roof falls were also common, resulting in miners being buried alive or suffocating. The miners ate and went to the toilet underground in the same places underground.

Coming home was difficult because the moleskin trousers would be stiff with the mixture of sweat, dust and mud as they dried in the summer or froze in winter. The boys were so exhausted that they fell asleep over dinner, and then they would have to wait their turn to wash in front of a zinc bath in front of the fire. The women would be continually boiling water since there could be as many as eight or nine men and boys working in the colliery. While the men were at work, the women would be continually fighting a losing battle to get the dust and dirt out of the house, as well as out of the clothes.

The eldest daughter would stay at home to help her mother, while the others would find work as maids, in shops, or sewing. Social life revolved around the pubs, the miners’ clubs, or ‘institutes’ which included libraries and theatre halls, and the nonconformist chapels, where there were social and cultural events every night of the week, as well as services on Sundays. The children would also attend Sunday schools, which organised picnics and ‘outings’ in the summer. Many men belonged to Male Voice Choirs, which regularly competed against each other, and there were also Community Singing events, Gymanfa Ganu, in which whole chapels and colliery villages would take part.

Tonypandy miners striking during the Cambrian Combine dispute of 1910-11.

In 1910-11 there were a series of strikes in the Cambrian Combine, in which many Rhondda miners worked. The company refused to increase wages, although they were making huge profits at that time. There was little strike pay at that time, and poor relief was restricted to those who lived in a rented property or were homeless. The miners organised soup kitchens, and communal lunches, and raised money for them by singing in the wealthier towns in south Wales. There were some riots and violent incidents at Tonypandy in 1910 when policemen from England were brought in to keep the miners ‘in line’.  Churchill, then Home Secretary, sent soldiers to south Wales, though they weren’t used. In 1926 the mine owners tried to cut the miners’ wages and locked them out of the collieries when their Trade Union refused to accept this. Other Trade Unions decided to call a General Strike throughout Britain in support, but this only lasted eight days. However, the miners stayed out for six months before they were starved back to work. Others left the valleys for good to find work in London, Birmingham, Coventry and Oxford (Cowley), where car manufacture and electrical engineering were expanding, mainly concentrated in the Midlands. To begin with, there was a trickle of single, independent men, but this was soon followed by whole families.

Wage cuts, lay-offs and the forceful use of police during the 1910s and 1920s led to the development of strong traditions of trade unionism and socialist politics throughout the south Wales Coalfield, especially in the Rhondda. However, just as Wales had benefited from the ‘boom’ time in the coal industry before the First World War, it suffered more than any other region from the slump in world markets for coal, iron and steel. Average unemployment reached 31% by the end of the thirties. In the valleys, however, this figure often reached more than two-thirds of the working population in particular towns and villages and by the 1930s only Durham had more people on poor relief. Even those in work in 1931 were on wages which were far worse than they had been five years earlier. At first, the National Government tried to persuade people to leave the valleys for work in England, believing that anything they did to make life better for the poor and unemployed would only hurt migration.

A contemporary map from the 1930s report above.

However, by 1934, when Britain as a whole was recovering from the Depression, the government decided to try to tackle the widespread unemployment and poverty in south Wales by providing incentives to industries to move into the area. Most of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire became part of the ‘Special Area’. However, the effects of these measures were slow to develop and inadequate in scale. At the same time, the effects of the high levels of poverty had become devastating, especially the accompanying levels of disease and malnutrition, as well as infant and maternal deaths. The incidence of tuberculosis was 130% above the natural average. Added to this, the results of outward migration meant that the number of Welsh speakers, which had increased and then remained stable over the previous decades, now went into decline. Local shops and services were no longer viable, and shopkeepers committed suicide rather than collect the money they were owed by customers who had no money to pay for essential food and clothing for their families. Others sold up and left for England to join the younger miners in their families. They were often deacons and elders in chapels, which were therefore now losing the leaders of their already dwindling congregations.

Between 1920 and 1940 Wales lost about 450,000 people, permanently, due to migration, 90% of whom were from the three counties of Glamorgan, Monmouthshire and Breconshire. Since about 10% of migrants failed to settle in the ‘new industry’ towns and cities of the Midlands and South East of England, the number of those experiencing ‘the exodus’ may have been well over half a million, a figure equivalent to one in five of the people of Wales in 1921. Very few of these went with the bribes offered by the Ministry of Labour, or under their control. Most of those who found their way to Cowley, Coventry and Birmingham did so with the help and organisation of their own families, or the friends they knew through Rugby, Boxing, Gymnastics and other sporting clubs, chapels, brass bands, choirs, and a whole ‘heavenly host’ of other cultural institutions.

It wasn’t just the individuals and families who migrated, therefore, but many of the organisations which they had set up in the valleys, and now transferred to the new places to which they moved. Membership in these traditional Welsh cultural institutions helped the migrants to settle and integrate. Fifty years later, the Welsh immigrants to Oxford, Birmingham and Coventry still retained the accents of the particular valleys in which they grew up and began work and their active membership of the remaining clubs and societies with Welsh origins and associations in these cities. Many had served in prominent positions in voluntary organisations and civic life, even becoming Lord Mayors. Among their children, there were a significant array of local sporting and musical ‘celebrities’.

Sport – Fields of Dreams:

Rugby may have been invented by an English public schoolboy, but it was the Welsh who turned into an art and a craft, not to mention a mass spectator sport, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Gareth Edwards was the greatest Rugby player in the world during his career, which spanned fifteen seasons. Still a student when he gained his first cap for Wales against France, this was the start of a run of fifty-three consecutive international appearances.

He captained his country thirteen times from his position behind the scrum (scrum-half).  During his career, he helped Wales to win seven Championships, five ‘Triple Crowns’ (victories over the other British countries) and three ‘Grand-Slams’ (victories in all four, now five matches). He also scored what most experts still agree was the finest ‘try’ (touch-down) of all time when appearing for the invitation Barbarian team in 1973. He also toured Australia and New Zealand with the British Lions three times, also playing against the visiting ‘All-Black’ team in 1971, the Lions’ first-ever series win against New Zealand. A more recent Lions team, with a core of Welsh players including George North and Leigh Halfpenny (pictured below), emulated the earlier successes in their tour ‘down under’ in 2013.

Although Rugby is still the most popular team sport, Wales has two Premier League teams, Cardiff City (‘the bluebirds’) and Swansea City (‘the Swans’). In 2012, the Cardiff team was promoted to the Premiership after a gap of fifty years outside the top division. Swansea had a great team in the 1980s and won promotion again in 2010. They finished high enough in the 2011-12 season to win a place in European competition. Since then, the twin ‘cities’ have struggled to retain that form and positions but last year, the national team took part in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, their first time in the finals since 1958. Unlike John Charles’s side, however, who lost to the eventual winning Brazilian team (and Pelé), Gareth Bale’s team failed to progress beyond the group stage.

Land of their Fathers Eisteddfodau & Other Annual Events:

Welsh people are proud of their country for a variety of reasons. Many regret the loss of independence and imposed rule, as many of them see it, from a foreign country, though they now have their own government in Cardiff. For the large minority who speak Welsh, a majority in many of the western and northern towns and villages, the Royal National Eisteddfod is perhaps their most important national institution. It is a major annual occasion when musicians, poets, artists and craftsmen gather during the first week in August on a site announced a year and a day before. ‘Eisteddfod’ literally means ‘being seated’ or, more formally, ‘Chairing’, referring to the ceremony in which the poet of the year is ‘invested’ or ‘installed’. The Archdruid of the ‘Order’ or Gorsedd of Bards presides over the chairing and crowning of the bard, which can only take place if the assembly answers his question A oes heddwch? ‘Is it Peace?’ in the affirmative by repeating the word ‘Heddwch’. But although the Eisteddfod is a purely Welsh invention, it is not as old as it seems, with its processions of white-robed druids. It dates from the Romantic Revival of the late eighteenth century.

Although this is perhaps the greatest ‘Cymric’ institution, smaller competitions, or festivals, are held throughout the year in towns, schools, colleges, churches and chapels the length and breadth of the country, especially on or around St David’s Day. The National Eisteddfod or Eisteddfod Cenedlaethol is held annually in a different place each year, announced a year and a day before. The Archdruid of the ‘Order’ or Gorsedd of the Bards presides over it and the mythology of the druidic ancestry symbolises that Wales is always ‘The Land of my Fathers’ (Hen Wlad fyng nghadau) and always, as the National Hymn goes on, a land of bards, singers and soldiers who spilt their blood for freedom. The language of the National Eisteddfod is Welsh, and besides the main competitions, there are many ‘side-shows’ from folk concerts to political gatherings. In fact, many visitors to the National Eisteddfod never go into the Pavillion, being able to view the competitions on the big screen (as pictured below). I attended the event in Caernarfon in 1979 as a student leader, and spoke, in my faltering Welsh, to a ‘fringe’ meeting of Welsh-speaking students.

Many visitors to the National Eisteddfod never go into the Pavillion (background), being able to view the competitions on the big screen (foreground). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I arrived in Wales as an undergraduate student in 1975, an ‘eisteddfod’ was not a new concept to me. In fact, I had already taken part in one in Birmingham, winning singing, recitation and drama competitions. It was also known as a ‘Festival of Arts’ and the competitions were in English, but the nature of the event was based on earlier events held by Welsh exiles in the city for more than a hundred years, mostly connected with the Welsh chapels. In the 1960s the ranks of these exiles had been swelled by Welsh teachers who formed at least half of those who taught me, whether at school or Sunday school. They twice helped my father, a Baptist pastor in the city from 1965 to 1979, to put on a very broad festival of competitions between the Baptist chapels in the west of the city. So, when I was asked to compete as a Welsh learner in the Inter-College Eisteddfod, involving students from all the universities and colleges in Wales, I was happy to do so. I learnt ‘Cofio’ (‘Remembering’) by Waldo Williams (see below), and remember it to this day, though I still don’t know the exact meaning of all the words. Unfortunately, I got flu just before the event was to be staged that year, 1976, in Aberystwyth, and was unable to compete since I had lost my voice. However, I did take part in local ‘Noson Lawen’, ‘Happy Nights’, and ‘Gymanfa Ganu’, Community Singing.

The River Dee near Llangollen

The International Eisteddfod is held in Llangollen, a picturesque north Wales town on the River Dee, in July each year, an event that draws participants and competitors from all over the world. Its folk-dance competitions are particularly colourful, and singers can use any language, making it open to all. The Royal Welsh Show is held annually in Builth Wells and attracts participants from all over the British Isles. The whole of rural life is there, from combine harvesters to prize bulls and sheep-shearing.

Writers of Wales & the World:

Dylan Thomas has often been described as one of the greatest writers in the English language, certainly of the first half of the twentieth century in which he lived. This is not just because of his poetry, written between 1934 and 1952, but also due to his short stories and plays. He was also a radio broadcaster, so we have many of his own recordings of his work. His work appeals to readers of all ages, including children, for whom the autobiographical stories of his own childhood are particularly interesting.

His origins are firmly rooted in southwest Wales. He wrote that his mother “came from the agricultural depths of Carmarthen” and his father was the son of a railway worker, “Thomas the Guard” in Johnstown, a small Carmarthenshire village, described in his short story, A Visit to Grandpa’s. Both parents were Welsh speakers, but Dylan grew up with only a few words and phrases in the language, although his name is taken from The Mabinogion, the great collection of medieval Welsh tales. He was born in Swansea in 1914 and lived in Cwmdonkin Drive, in a modest, semi-detached house on a steep hill with panoramic views across the town and the bay. His father was an English master at Swansea Grammar School and Dylan was encouraged to use his library. Besides poetry books, young Dylan’s other passion was the theatre and he was a good actor at school. In 1932 he acted in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Little Theatre in Swansea

A drawing by Robin Jacques for the short story, A Visit to Grandpa’s.

After leaving school, he worked briefly as a junior reporter for the South Wales Evening Post. His first poem to be published in a national magazine was No man Believes (1933), but more significant was the publication of his poem Light in The Listener (1934), which was praised by T S Eliot and Stephen Spender, two leading London poets of the day. His first book, 18 Poems was published just before Christmas in the same year. This led him to London and the publication of his second book by J M Dent in 1936. It was there that he met Caitlin Macnamara, a stunningly attractive Irish dancer.  She was modelling for the Welsh painter Augustus John, who later painted Dylan’s two most famous portraits. Augustus introduced Caitlin to Dylan and within a year they got married in Penzance, Cornwall. Dylan had his work published in the US in 1939, and also began supplementing his modest income from writing by joining Wynford Vaughan Thomas at the BBC. He eventually made over eighty scripted broadcasts, some of which have become classics of the genre. The renowned Welsh actor Richard Burton was full of praise for Dylan’s broadcasting abilities.

Dylan & Caitlin at the Boathouse.

Dylan, Caitlin and their young daughter Aeronwy moved to ‘The Boathouse’ in Laugharne from the Cardigan Bay town of Aberaeron in 1949. He had first visited what he called “the strangest town in Wales” in 1934 and had briefly lived there in 1938. Like many other writers and artists, including Edward Thomas, Augustus John and Richard Hughes, Dylan loved the town and felt secure there. His friend and fellow-writer, Vernon Watkins, described it as being Dylan’s “last refuge and sanity in a nightmare world.” Settled there, with some degree of permanence, Dylan had a new burst of creativity, producing some of his finest poems. In 1950 he published what became his most famous story, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, an amalgam of two other stories, in an American magazine. Working high above the estuary in the primitive wooden structure which was his ‘workshed’, he also wrote one of his best-loved poems, Do not go gentle there, and worked on his radio play Under Milk Wood there, in between trips to the US.

A page from A Child’s Christmas illustrated by Edward Ardizzone.

These American trips were exhausting, but necessary, given his financial situation. Dylan prepared carefully for his readings, copying out each poem he intended to read into his best ‘copperplate’ handwriting. He travelled huge distances from city to city and from campus to campus. Not only was he expected to perform onstage, but also at the faculty parties which followed. Among those he met were Arthur Miller and Charlie Chaplin, whose films Dylan loved, identifying strongly with the character of the vulnerable little tramp. While in New York he fell into the Bohemian atmosphere of Greenwich Village with the same enthusiasm he had greeted Fitzrovia in London in the thirties. John Malcolm Brinnin chronicled these last years in his book Dylan Thomas in America, which came to be hated by Caitlin and Dylan’s friends in Britain because it described Dylan’s drunken behaviour. On his fourth and final, fatal trip to America, Dylan collapsed on the streets and died in New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital on 9 November 1953, in circumstances which remain disputed.

The town centre in Laugharne, with Dylan’s favourite watering hole on the left.

Although Dylan Thomas’ reputation was quickly established as a poet in the 1930s, he is now better known for his brilliant radio play, Under Milk Wood, and for his wonderfully humorous stories based on his childhood and adolescent experiences in Wales. He was fascinated by the small-town characters which surrounded him, especially in Laugharne, which he renamed Llareggub (spell it backwards in English!) Their conversations are gently mimicked, while the sounds, sights and smells of those seaside towns he describes so wittily are as fresh and amusing today as they were more than half a century ago.

R S Thomas was born in March 1913. His reputation as a poet has been international for more than a generation, but his heart and soul belong to the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales, where he was both poet and priest. There he was inspired by the rugged and challenging landscape as well as by the people he met and ministered to. He had been a priest in successive parishes in Wales before he reached the last parish before Ireland, Aberdaron. As you travel down the peninsula, the land becomes starker and starker, narrowing to the headlands at the tip where the sea takes over. Thomas’ poems and the views connect with each other, encouraging us to explore the questions which arise from both the poetry and the landscape. Few poets ask as many questions as R S Thomas. They invite us to explore and to take to mind and heart questions that have no easy answers, or that are unanswerable.

Waldo Williams (1904-1972) was a native of Pembrokeshire and, in between writing, a junior school teacher. His poems, written in Welsh, are very mystical and intense, always relating to his Christian vision of the oneness of all mankind. His mastery of the language in a great variety of verse forms, often original and individual, and his use of imagery, give an unusual force and freshness to his expression of ancient themes. A strong pacifist, he was once imprisoned for his refusal to contribute taxes for military purposes. He was a very reserved Welshman, greatly loved by many. Late in life, he received a long-deserved Arts Council prize. His one volume of verse, Dail Pren, won him an enduring place in Welsh literature. Here is one of his best-loved poems, first in its beautiful, original Welsh, and then (the first four verses) in translation:


“One short minute before the sun goes from the sky,

One gentle minute before the night starts on its journey,

To remember the forgotten things

Lost now in the dust of times gone by.

“Like the foam of a wave that breaks on a lonely shore,

Like the wind’s song where there is no ear to hear,

I know they call in vain upon us –

The old forgotten things of human kind.

“The achievement and art of early generations,

Small dwellings and great halls,

The fine-wrought legends scattered centuries ago,

The gods that no one knows about by now.

“And the little words of transient languages,

They were gay on the lips of men,

And pleasant to the ear in the chatter of little children,

But no tongue calls upon them any longer.”

‘Cofio/Remembering’ by Waldo Williams

The upright bluestone on Rhos Fach near Mynachlogddu was erected in memory of the great Welsh Nationalist, poet, pacifist and Quaker, who lived and taught in the area. Pentre Ifan (below) was once a burial chamber, standing nearby and overlooking the north Pembrokeshire coast, one of the ancient sites which inspired the poetry of Waldo Williams.

Dai Smith is a historian and writer who was born in Tonypandy in the Rhondda in 1945. He supervised my PhD research and doctoral thesis from 1978 to 1988. As the son of a Yorkshireman and a Welsh-speaking woman, he grew up speaking English. “You did unless you were the son of the manse,” he told one reporter. Sons of the manse were bogey figures in the new Wales which began to emerge in the late seventies and early eighties when he began writing on Wales.

A street in Pontypridd, looking up to the Rhondda Valleys in the eighties.

I was a Welsh-speaking Englishman and a son of the manse, so although I may not have been a ‘bogey man’, we had quite a ‘catalytic’ relationship. He remembered the sense of community that was left over from the Depression:

“You couldn’t survive as a family in the Depression. You were self-sufficient (only) as a street.”

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales?

He also remembered the street parties and the local jazz concerts. But even then, in the ‘fag-end’ of the tradition he describes in his books, it was not a ‘parochial’ society. It looked outwards. Dai had returned to Wales in the mid-seventies from a sojourn studying in New York, to find that although there was an enormous upsurge in the writing of Welsh history, industrial Wales had, so far, been largely ignored. The Valleys were in decline, with the mines closing down one after another and with them the miners’ libraries. Nobody seemed interested, because the influential people of Wales were what he described as ‘born-again Welshmen’, English speakers who had learnt Welsh, often pretentiously changing their names in the process. The Wales he knew was urban and English-speaking because, throughout the twentieth century, fewer than half of the Welsh had been able to speak Welsh. He believed that one of the greatest myths ever propagated was that the Welsh language was ‘murdered’ or ‘kicked in the teeth’ by the English state.

At the centre of this myth was the ‘Welsh Not’, the wooden placard hung about the necks of pupils heard speaking Welsh at school. In the myth, this is the size of a breadboard. In one of his TV programmes Dai Smith handles one of the few surviving ‘Welsh Nots’: it is the size of a matchbox. Nor is there any evidence of a directive handed down by an English bureaucracy to schools. The ‘Welsh Not’ was in fact a much earlier phenomenon than the advent of universal elementary education, introduced only in voluntary schools. Also in fact, it was the product of the ambitions of Welsh parents who asked for it to be used to encourage their children to use English as a medium of instruction in science and mathematics, alongside Welsh, in those local areas where little English was spoken outside school. In his book and companion TV series, Wales? Wales! (1984), Dai explored, provocatively, what it really meant to be Welsh. He argued that the myths around Welsh identity had been used and added to by a ‘Cymricising’ leisure industry as much as by nationalists. Wales was busy reinventing its past to serve the needs of the present.

Dai also wrote about the English-language literature of Wales, discussing poets like R. S. Thomas and Idris Davies as well as novelists like Lewis Jones and Raymond Williams. He ruthlessly dissected Richard Llewellyn’s hugely popular book, How Green Was My Valley, which became an Oscar-winning Holywood film in 1940, and a more authentic television series in the 1970s. As an English-Speaking Welshman, Dai Smith has often felt that the Welsh language has been put on a life support machine by the British Government. More recently, of course, it has been supported directly from Cardiff, by the Welsh Assembly. The heavy subsidy for writing in Welsh, he argues, ignores how life in Wales has been lived for more than a century by the majority of its population. Saxons called its people ‘wealas’, strangers. Ironically, Dai Smith claimed, this is what the Anglo-Welsh majority in Wales has been increasingly made to feel like in their own country, this time by their own countrymen, the Cymry Cymraeg.

Offa’s Dyke in North Wales (foreground) with Chirk Castle in the distance. Photo by Kevin Bleasdale, Landscape Photographer of the Year. He wrote:

“I was walking the line of Offa’s Dyke in North Wales when
the slanting late afternoon winter light raked across the landscape,
illuminating the folds in the gently rolling hillside.”

Photograph of Valle Crucis Abbey, Denbighshire, Wales – detail of tracery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the time I left Wales in 1983, I was so in love with Welsh landscapes and cultural events that, at the first opportunity, I took a group of Lancashire kids from the school where I held my first teaching post, to the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, where we sang I like to go a-wandering in Valle Crucis Abbey and watched Hungarian folk-dancing by the picturesque River Dee. We also visited Welsh and Norman castles on either side of Offa’s Dyke, acting out sheep raids in both directions! I have yet to find a daffodil blooming here in Hungary on 1st March 2023 but am sure that there are already magnificent displays of them below the castle walls around Wales. I’m also sure they are blooming beneath the walls of Canterbury, the town founded by the Cantii and refounded by Romans, Britons, Jutes and Saxons and where I sojourned last in Britain.

Blwyddin Dydd Gwl Dewi! A Joyous St David’s Day, wherever and however you celebrate it!

Hwyl fawr i chi gyd!


Related articles:
Major Additional Sources:

The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History (2001).


The Illusion of ‘Illiberal’ Democracy in Hungary & Russia’s Imperial War in Ukraine, 2010-23.

Welcome Back, Comrades!

‘Farewell, comrades!’ A poster from the first Hungarian free elections in 1990.

When I returned to Hungary in 2011 to live after a gap of fifteen years in the UK (including a year in the South of France), it was as a husband to a Hungarian citizen with family responsibilities back home in Hungary. So I took early retirement from teaching in the UK, something I had saved for even when working in Hungary in 1992-96, running a teachers’ exchange programme for Devon County Council and Baranya County Assembly, based in Pécs. At that time, I worked with politicians and officials of all political persuasions from both counties to bring about the transition to democracy that was then well underway in Hungary under a succession of liberalising governments, local and national, drawing their support from across the political spectrum. These were composed of broad coalitions of parties, and for four years we were careful, especially as ‘outsiders’ to work with all of them, without fear or favour. Moreover, the Councillors from Devon who regularly visited us were drawn from the Conservative, Liberal Democratic and Labour parties, yet demonstrated how local politics in Britain worked at its best. Added to this, we were keen to open up English Language learning to a wide diversity of students and pupils in the state education system, alongside the teaching of other ‘foreign’ languages.

Courting the Western Powers, 1998-2002:

As a ‘Christian socialist’ in British terms, and therefore, in European terms, a centrist Social Democrat, I had never had any difficulty in discussing questions of religious faith and politics in Hungary, even in my earliest ‘sojourns’ in Hungary in 1988-91 during my time working for nonconformist colleges and organisations in the English Midlands. So when I encountered misunderstandings and misinterpretations of these firmly-held beliefs in 2011-14, I was surprised by the growing sectarianism and intolerance that seemed prevalent in Hungarian public life at that time, contrasting sharply with the ‘liberal democratic’ atmosphere of the country in the 1990s, which had led to its accession to the EU and NATO by the early years of this century. My regular family visits to Hungary and my contacts among the growing Hungarian expatriate community in Britain did not suggest that anything fundamental had changed, even during the early Orbán government. But when it lost power in 2002, something did change within Fidesz, though it seemed that those now in power would be able to pick up the torch and run with it.

However, it was clear by 2010 that I was mistaken in this, and that western liberal democratic views were, already, no longer welcome. In particular, the ruling Fidesz Party was no longer the upholder of these views, despite President Bush’s speech in Budapest four years earlier. As a Christian, I supported the social conservatism of the Orbán government but saw no contradiction between ‘secular toleration’ and ‘sacred traditionalism’ in this respect.

‘Fitting in’ with Fidesz:

I had always rejected bigotry and ‘exceptionalism’ of any kind in Britain, but this was what I was now encountering for the first time in Hungary. Even in the churches and church schools, I came up against ‘exclusivist’ mantras and was made to feel that, despite (or perhaps because of) all my experience in bilingual, international and intercultural education, I “simply didn’t fit in”. I have since “shaken the dust from my feet” of those ‘church’ institutions I first served, and have kept my views to myself, except when my homeland has come under unprovoked attack for its multi-cultural and anti-racist values, which have proved to be in conflict with the increasingly monocultural direction of Hungarian society since 2015. Returning to my Anglican roots, however, I continue to be a ‘tolerated’ foreigner in the lower echelons of church-controlled (and therefore Fidesz-controlled) higher education. Here I am now permitted to express, in moderation, my ‘eccentric’ liberal educational views. Others, with similar views and values, have sadly not survived in these institutions.

The Hungarian Basic Law, the new constitution, was brought in by the second Orbán government in 2011.

However, as a British citizen and elector, I believe I have the right to comment on the UK’s relations with other NATO members and on its international relations, including the EU, even though it is no longer a member state of the latter organisation, as Hungary still is, at least for the time being. Since Ukraine is an ally of NATO in its resistance to Russia’s illegal invasions and occupations of its sovereign territory, I feel at liberty to explain and critique Hungary’s recent pro-Russian and therefore anti-NATO stance, especially on the first anniversary of the full-scale war begun on the orders of Vladimir Putin on 24th February 2022. In doing so, I will summarise and quote from Zsuzsanna Szelényi’s recently published (2022) book, Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary, in which she gives a fuller critique of Hungary’s foreign and domestic policies under Fidesz rule.

Hungary – a Tainted Democracy?:
Cover image from Szelényi’s book: Silhouettes of demonstrators as they form a human chain around the Hungarian Parliament to protest against PM Viktor Orbán’s latest anti-LGBT law in Budapest on 14 June 2021. REUTERS/Marton Monus TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.

Szelényi, like many former leading figures of Fidesz, was once, in the 1990s, a parliamentary ally of Viktor Orbán who has now become an outspoken political opponent. The book shows, in her terms, how Hungary, once the poster child of liberal democracy, is fast becoming an autocracy under Orbán’s fourth premiership in succession. After winning an absolute majority in 2010, Orbán launched a series of ‘reforms’, abandoning the country’s twenty-year-old, post-Cold War liberal consensus and 1989 Constitution of the second post-World War II Republic (see the picture & caption below).

For domestic supporters and foes alike, the rise of Hungary’s current prime minister is a vivid example of how democracy can be subverted from within. For foreign observers, it is puzzling, given Hungary’s history since 1945, but it seems to mirror the growth of Vladimir Putin’s tsarist autocracy in Russia. Except that Russia never, even briefly, became a true democracy at the end of the Cold War, but remained an autocratic, oligarchic, imperial power. Szelényi was a leading member of Orbán’s Fidesz in its early years after the first free elections took place in 1990. She witnessed first-hand the party’s shift from liberalism to populist nationalism. She explains how the party rose to leadership of the country under Órban to make sweeping legal, political and economic changes to solidify its grip on power – from the tightening of control over the public media to slashing the number of parliamentary seats. She also asks key questions as to why Orbán has been so successful in winning support in Hungary and wielding considerable influence in European politics.

Zsuzsanna Szelényi

After working at the Council of Europe for fifteen years, Zsuzsanna Szelényi returned to politics in 2012, representing the liberal opposition in Parliament from 2014. In the election campaign of that year, She writes:

‘We were filled with excitement as we left behind the city of Kecskemét after a busy day in early March 2014. A large crowd had gathered in the dance hall of ‘Hotel Aranyhomok’ for Együtt’s campaign rally. The town of Kecskemét was a Fidesz stronghold, so even we were surprised at how many people wanted to hear us a few weeks before the 2014 parliamentary elections – at how many people wanted political change.’

Szelényi (2022), p 127.

Together with her fellow party colleagues, she had already attended three hustings a day, and their progress around the country was going full steam ahead. They travelled home feeling positive, dissecting the afternoon’s events and surveying the latest opinion polls. The figures varied, but the trend was encouraging; Fidesz was leading with 30%, but the partial opposition alliance they had created in January of that year stood at 23%. Nevertheless, all the signs pointed to a Fidesz victory. It fought a hostile campaign, portraying the opposition leaders as communists. Gordon Bajnai, the Együtt leader faced a systematic smear campaign, with Fidesz’s paid campaigners marching in front of the Aranyhomok hotel in Kecskemét to slander him. The electoral system formed in 1989 had made it easy for Fidesz to win an absolute majority in parliament, a unique case in Europe. This also made it possible for them to win more than two-thirds of the seats with only 52% of the popular vote despite representing only one-third of the total electorate.

Trianon Tropes – Forming an Elective Dictatorship, 2014-2018:

But in the run-up to the 2014 election, the Fidesz government assisted its own party’s chances by changing the election rules. They justified changing the law by claiming it would be more democratic, making the results more proportionate to the votes cast, but the reverse happened. By abolishing the second round of voting for single-member constituencies, they prevented the smaller parties from collaborating against Fidesz, thus ensuring that they would always secure the ‘central force’. Secondly, the Electoral Act reduced the number of electoral districts from 176 to 106 and redrew all the constituency boundaries. This was a typical form of gerrymandering, the political manipulation of electoral boundaries with the intent of increasing undue advantage for Fidesz. A third change was that whereas previously a form of compensation had existed to boost the parties of individual candidates who were at a disadvantage because of the ‘winner-takes-all’ principle, now even greater rewards were given to the winning party. Moreover, the Constitutional Court, which by 2011 had a majority of Fidesz appointees, found no objection to these changes.

Present-day ‘revisionist’ symbols

What also affected the outcome of the elections was that the Fidesz government amended the Citizenship Act, making it possible for ethnic Hungarians living beyond its borders could obtain Hungarian citizenship even without ever having been domiciled in Hungary. What’s often referred to as the ‘Treason of the Trianon Treaty’ of 1920 has continued to sour relations between Hungary and its Slavic neighbours for more than a century, especially those to the East on the edges of the Carpathians. It was therefore no coincidence that Viktor Orbán chose to make his key speech announcing his policy of illiberal democracy in Transylvania. The government in Budapest actively supported Hungarian language organisations in Romania, Serbia and Ukraine that advocated the simplified naturalisation procedure. This meant that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries were entitled to take part in Hungary’s parliamentary elections in 2014, 96% of them voting for Fidesz.

While these ‘newly minted’ citizens were eligible to cast postal votes, expatriate Hungarians studying or working abroad could only cast their votes abroad in person at Hungarian embassies and consulates. Exchange students living temporarily across the EU, including in the UK, had to travel for hours to their nearest consulate, whereas, in the Romanian region of Szekerland, Hungarians in small villages voted en masse by mail. They also had a vote in Romanian elections, of course, and did not pay taxes in Hungary. It was therefore no surprise when the turnout was far lower among ex-pats than among ethnic Hungarians from neighbouring countries. This discriminatory aspect of the new law was unsuccessfully challenged in the Constitutional Court.

Ethnic Hungarians campaigning for an autonomous homeland in Szekerland, Romania.

With campaigning rules tipped so heavily in favour of Fidesz, it was difficult to predict the extent to which this would distort the result. With less than 45% of the votes, Fidesz once more gained power. In 2010 they had won a two-thirds majority with 52% of the votes; now, in 2014, it gained the same result with less than half the votes, due to the changes in electoral law. Despite having lost a fifth of its supporters over the four years, it still retained its supermajority, if only by one seat. When Zsuzanna Szelényi was sworn into parliament in June 2014, she found herself surrounded by Fidesz politicians, and she felt isolated. Twenty-four years previously, when she had first taken her parliamentary seat bursting with pride, her experience had been completely different:

‘Back then, as members of Fidesz’s small team, we saw ourselves as the anointed representatives of democracy. In the 1990’s, the rule of law was one of Fidesz’s guiding principles, and not once did we critique a law without making reference to democratic norms:

“We responsibly declare that all of Fidesz’s policies in all circumstances are guided by its belief in pluralism, which includes a changing {government}”, we said in 1990 when debating the governmental programme.

Viktor Orbán criticised the government, saying:

“Stable legal principles worked out over millennia cannot be made subservient to short-term political aims”.

It was unacceptable, in our view, for the government to reject the opposition’s criticisms:

“… such scenes bode ill for the future of democracy”.

‘…In 2014, twenty-four years after first being sworn in, I had to ask myself another question: what point was there in working as an opposition member of Parliament? … The leaders of state institutions were chosen by a single person. Though it was difficult to imagine, Fidesz could do whatever it wanted.’

Szelényi, pp. 134-136.

Viktor Orbán in the first ‘liberal’ Fidesz government of 1998-2002.

However, Fidesz lost its supermajority in a by-election the following year and was therefore no longer able to alter the system ahead of the next contest in 2018. At the same time, the governing parties gained considerable influence in the market for billboards and other media. Government propaganda, disguised as public information advertising, flooded both state and commercial broadcasting stations. This further distorted the 2018 parliamentary contest. The Election Observation Mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) found that the elections were…

‘… characterised by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resource, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis’.

The report concluded that the media were highly biased towards the ruling party and that any intimidating rhetoric and opaque campaign financing had severely restricted the arena for genuine political debate and limited voters’ ability to make a fully informed decision. For the third of the voters who did not have access to the internet, it was as though the opposition was non-existent. When Fidesz regained its supermajority, it once again altered the Electoral Act. This further restricted the opposition’s room for manoeuvre.

Populism & ‘The Hungarian Fairy Tale’ – The EU’s funding of Fidesz:
Only Fidesz! Orbán the populist in April 2018.

“‘The Hungarian fairy tale’, or the Hungarian example, will be a successful one in a year” asserted György Matolcsy to Richard Quest, a CNN Business presenter, when asked about the quirks of Hungary’s unorthodox economic policy. International markets did not appreciate the Orbán government’s initial steps, and the political battles fought in support of this policy, and for a while, they turned their backs on it. But in 2016 international credit rating authorities raised Hungary’s rating to investment grade and by 2019, the national debt had fallen to 66% of GDP. Economic growth started slowly post-2012, but after 2014 it reached 4%-5% per annum, which was good even by global standards. In 2010, the GDP per capita in Hungary was 65% of the EU average, but by 2019 this had risen 73%. People’s income had risen significantly in ten years and unemployment had fallen to a very low level. Between 2010 and 2017 export revenues poured in from trade with the West. The decade saw a boom in public investments and several thousand kilometres of roads and railways were modernised, hundreds of public buildings, schools and kindergartens were built, and churches were renovated, as were castles and town squares, mostly with funds from the EU. And football stadia, in line with Orbán’s personal interests and priorities, were built in numbers hitherto unseen.

At first glance, the economic achievements of the Orbán government’s economic policies seem striking. Fidesz claimed that a country on the brink of state bankruptcy was saved because of its commitment to national sovereignty and unorthodox policies, breaking with the global liberal order. In reality, one of the fundamental sources for creating macroeconomic stability was the enormous sums flowing in from the EU. In the seven years following 2013, the EU funds arriving in the country were equivalent annually to 4%-6% of Hungary’s GDP. Never before had Hungary had access to such large funds that were not loans. In terms of their scale, these funds can be compared only with the Marshall Plan disbursed to the war-torn countries of Western Europe after the Second World War. Of course, countries in the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’, including Hungary, were prevented from accessing this aid. In exchange for the opening up of EU development funds to the ‘accession states’ of 2004, the Central European states opened up their internal markets, from which Western European companies profited greatly. However, few ‘public servants’ in Hungary benefited from the EU funds, certainly not health workers and teachers.

Many public sector workers benefited from working in other EU countries, including the UK. But, far from losing out from this mass temporary migration, the Hungarian economy benefited from the transfers made by these migrant workers. The sheer scale of this financial resource promoted economic growth and exercised a positive effect on the balance of payments. Paradoxically, the expatriates, many of them escapees from living under the Orbán régime, contributed to its continuity by sending money back home. Salaries and wages in Western countries were worth three times as much in central Europe, and though accommodation costs were concomitantly expensive, there was still a considerable surplus which could be redirected home.

One government-commissioned study showed that without the EU funds, the Hungarian economy would have flatlined and not grown at all. In addition, the second Orbán government came to power after the international financial crisis of 2008-2010, when productivity in EU countries was rising by 8% after the worldwide slump; in Germany, this figure was 14%. Since the Hungarian economy was already heavily dependent on German manufacturing, primarily through automotive, machine and electronics manufacturing, growth in Germany had a knock-on effect on Hungary. Finally, in 2014 oil prices on the world market fell, which also had a favourable impact on economic growth, with much of the country’s energy supplies coming cheaply from Russia. These fortunate circumstances naturally not only benefited Hungary but the whole of Central Europe. In fact, after 2008, Hungary’s achievements lagged behind those of its neighbours by 1% to 1.5%.

The unique ‘unorthodox economic policy’ called ‘the Hungarian Way’ by the Orbán government brought no special success to Hungary at all. The Hungarian National Bank kept interest rates even lower than other European banks so that the government’s so-called unorthodox actually merged into liberal European trends they liked to attack. It kept the budget deficit below 3% and reduced government debt until 2020. Its main trading partners continued to be in the EU, so a radically different economic policy would have been inconceivable. But government propaganda glossed over the reality that the good results were not only due to the performance of the Hungarian economy but to favourable external conditions and EU subsidies.

The funds that were disbursed did something to raise living standards and soften indignation at the enormous wealth amassed by political leaders. Szelényi maintains that the long-term interests of the country would have been better served if the government had reduced the deficit more significantly, improved the competitiveness of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), invested in developing a knowledge-based economy and the diversification of Hungary’s energy sources. Economists warned in vain that the Hungarian economy, beset by structural problems, was in no position to ride out an unexpected crisis. In the event, it faced two in quick succession, created by the Covid pandemic and then by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Blood or Oil? – The 2022 Hungarian Election, Propaganda & Putin’s War:

When the Russian all-out invasion of Ukraine occurred in February 2022, Hungary was at the height of its General Election campaign, with Fidesz and Orbán looking for a fourth successive term in office. The war revealed Orbán to be on the side of the aggressor, Vladimir Putin, but Fidesz’s by now well-developed communications apparatus was able to construct a narrative and reach every household within days. Government propaganda spun the opposition’s message to stand by Ukraine and with the rest of the West, claiming that they were dangerous warmongers whereas Orbán was a man of peace and stability. Billions of forints were spent on a billboard and social media campaign, and the news outlets, controlled by Fidesz, diluted the natural desire of Hungarians to help their stricken neighbour. Orbán’s message as his country’s leader was simple: Do you want blood or oil?

Millions were persuaded that they did not want the former, associated with the opposition and that neither did they want an oil embargo which would shut off their direct, cheap supplies from Russia by pipeline, ironically through Ukraine. People voted for the ruling party en masse, turning what had seemed like a highly unfavourable political position into another triumph for the Orbán propaganda machine. In his victory speech, Orbán went on to include President Zelensky as among his ‘opponents’, implying that Putin was his ally. When the Ukrainian leader expressed his objection to this and disappointment with Hungary for its refusal to back its NATO allies, Foreign Secretary Szíjjártó called in the Ukrainian Ambassador in Budapest for a severe reprimand.

Of course, every country has its communication institutions serving the aims of its government, exploiting these resources to gain an upper hand, and Ukraine’s, exemplified by its President’s speeches, has been an outstanding success over the past year, but in Orbán’s Hungary, the communications apparatus of government and Fidesz were, and are, one and the same. This has become most apparent in the use of ‘government’ questionnaires to bypass parliamentary debate and decision-making and to ignore EU solidarity. One recent such official ‘poll’ was widely advertised as showing that 97% of Hungarians were opposed to ‘Brussels’ sanctions on Russia. It was reminiscent of the Nazi plebiscite of 1938 in Austria (below), conducted with German tanks in occupation, except the tanks are now Russian, camped on Ukrainian territory.

The penultimate page of ‘These Tremendous Years, 1918-38’, a journalistic album. Below, are an article and the cartoon from The Moscow Times from 2014 showing the similarities between Hitler’s occupation of Austria and Putin’s initial invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Only a tiny minority of Hungarians return these questionnaires, whose usefulness seems mainly to be in expanding the Fidesz Party database. Tax databases were also used to send a letter from the government telling taxpayers that they would receive tax rebates, but only the return of the current government would guarantee these. Even expatriate taxpayers living and working in Hungary received these, even though most don’t have a vote. Besides these, there were a host of conspiracy theories spread through these Fidesz-controlled outlets. In any country with a free, diverse and balanced media, the government would have countered these. But in Hungary, they were allowed to spread, as in the case of a picture circulated on the internet of a bundle of mailed-in ballot papers in Transylvania, Romania, which had apparently been tampered with and destroyed (purportedly by ‘opponents’ of Fidesz).

Secrets in the Kremlin.
‘All that Gaz!’ Economic Imperialism & Weaponising Energy Supplies:

Orbán’s secret agreements with Putin on the construction of two new nuclear reactors in 2014 and on gas prices drew attention to his complete change of attitude to Russia. In 2008, when Putin stormed into Georgia, Orbán had said:

‘Nothing like this has happened since the end of the Cold War. The enforcement of brute imperial power politics that Russia has now undertaken has been unknown in the last twenty years.’

‘Russian military action reminds Orbán of 1956’ (Hungarian), Index, 14 August 2008 (index. hu).

One year later, in 2009, Orbán met Putin and a new chapter in their relationship began, in contrast to the cool reserve that had previously marked their interaction. Like most Central European states, including Germany, Hungary gets most of its energy sources from Russia, and so at this meeting, they talked about the oil and gas supplies. Later, it transpired that even then there was also talk about plans to expand the nuclear power station in Paks, Tolna County, an idea Orbán himself had previously condemned. One of the PM’s old acquaintances explained this ‘change of heart’ towards Russia to a journalist by saying that Viktor realised that this had the potential to give him leverage over the EU. However, it was not easy for the Orbán government to achieve this ‘volte fáce’ because of Fidesz’s traditional anti-Russian sentiment dating back to Orbán’s own famous speech in May 1989 at the re-internment of the Prime Minister in 1956, Imre Nagy (see the pictures below) executed by the Kádár régime in 1958, at which he called for the swift withdrawal of the Soviet troops that had been occupying Hungary since 1956. In 1990, the cries of Fidesz supporters at the elections were Ruszkik háza! (‘Russians go home!’)

To build a new, pragmatic relationship with Russia it was necessary for Orbán to commit to the construction of a new nuclear power station in Paks (II), based on a Russian system and using a Russian loan, although the country was not at that time in need of them, because the existing power station was guaranteed to produce electricity until 2032. Since only a small circle of ministers and officials knew of the secret Paks agreement, it took even Fidesz MPs by surprise and caused them grave concern. But they persuaded themselves that if a good relationship with Russia was necessary for pragmatic reasons, they should try to get the most out of it. This central-eastern ‘entente cordiále’ became a sensitive topic after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Russian incursions into eastern Ukraine. This territorial aggression was sternly condemned by the EU and the United States, who both introduced economic sanctions and suspended bilateral diplomatic relations with Russia. Orbán tried to ‘strike a balance’ in this increasingly divisive conflict. As a gesture towards Putin, he protested noisily against the sanctions, but in the European Council, he voted for them repeatedly. In February 2015, Putin arrived in Budapest with unprecedented security measures in place which blocked the capital’s transport network for an entire day and closed half the country’s airspace.

Opposition politicians were primarily outraged because Orbán’s reception of Putin was in contravention of the European Council’s decision to suspend diplomatic relations with Russia, which Orbán had voted for a year earlier. But MPs were never told what unusual matter justified Putin’s personal visit. Their indignation grew even greater when Putin made use of the Budapest press conference to call on Ukraine to abandon part of its own sovereign territory. Without any alternative reasonable explanation, the visit could only be interpreted as showing Orbán’s support for a demonstration of Russian strength to the western powers, showing that Putin could still be received with pomp in central Europe when the leaders of the continent were punishing his country with sanctions.

Protests in Budapest against Orbán’s ‘illiberal state’ laws.
The ‘Illiberal State’, Fake News & Geopolitics:

Despite the repeated assertions by government ministers that the Russian relationship was merely a matter of business, the political nature of the relationship became all too apparent when Orbán seemed to try to copy Putin’s ‘illiberal state’ system. For some years, Orbán had been systematically bolstering a national business ‘élite’ linked to himself, rather like Putin’s ‘oligarchs’. There were also many new laws curtailing democracy in Hungary, such as the ‘foreign-funded organisations’ law denigrating and intimidating NGOs, many of which had assisted Syrian refugees, and the so-called ‘anti-paedophile law’ which was actually homophobic, prohibiting schools from acknowledging same-sex relationships or dealing with student questions about them. These are similar in tone and content to Russian legislation on these social issues and responsibilities under human rights agreements. The huge Fidesz media empire systematically made use of fake news and propaganda disseminated by Russian state media.

Orbán’s belief in his own exceptional abilities, that he could keep Russian policy in check, could not be relied upon, because Putin’s policies were shot through with imperialism. Ever since 2005, Putin had been of the opinion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Without it, of course, Hungary and the other central European states, including the GDR (DDR) could not have won their freedom. Putin himself had been a KGB operative in East Berlin at that time. I recall that in 1991, at the time of the attempted coup against Gorbachev in Moscow and Crimea, there were real concerns among my Hungarian relatives that the ‘Ruszkis’ would be returning to Hungary, just as they had in 1956.

From 2005 onwards, Putin pursued expansionist strategies and since he always considered NATO as the greatest threat to Russia’s security, Hungary, as a NATO member, could only play a role as a channel through which to influence Western institutions. However, this did not preclude Russia from making deals with various European countries, including Germany, which (under Merkel) had made itself dependent on the direct ‘Nordstream’ pipelines from Russia. It was convenient for Putin to trigger conflicts between the Western allies through Hungary.

Budapest & Brussels – poles apart?

After 2014 Hungary pursued contradictory politics with its neighbours, especially Ukraine. While, on the one hand, it appeared to stand in solidarity when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas, within NATO the Orbán government made it impossible to set up a joint commission with Ukraine, claiming that the new Ukrainian language law infringed on the rights of the Hungarian minority in the sub-Carpathian west of the country. In 2017, Ukrainian legislators amended the country’s Education Act, restricting the rights of national minorities (primarily the Russian minority) to use their own languages as media of instruction in schools. The amendment would have had a potentially adverse effect on the 150,000-strong Hungarian community and the Orbán government used it as a means to forge a common cause with the Russian imperialists in their designs upon the largely Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine. The law was later declared unconstitutional by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, but not before Orbán had used the row to block dialogue between Ukraine and NATO. This was a disproportionate reaction to the language law problems and continued to sour relations between the two neighbours.

‘Mutti’ has harsh words for Viktor.

Meanwhile, the Orbán government continued to improve Hungary’s economic ties with Russia. As well as his shift to ‘illiberalism’, and autocracy within Hungary, his anti-immigration stance in the wake of the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis served the same foreign policy end, antagonising Angela Merkel (above) and Germany in particular. In September 2021, he signed a new fifteen-year natural gas supply deal with Russia’s state-controlled giant Gazprom. Gas started to flow to Hungary through the TurkStream gas pipeline, which opened at almost the same time. This enabled Russia to transport gas to Hungary and other ‘southern’ EU countries by completely avoiding Ukraine, detrimental to Ukraine’s interests. Over several years, therefore, Hungary was actually representing Moscow’s interests on various platforms, and the long-term gas deals made Hungary’s energy supply almost entirely dependent on Russian gas for more than a decade. Thus, Orbán’s already decade-long special relationship with Putin put the Hungarian government in an almost inevitable conflict with its EU partners when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The War, the EU & NATO – the future of Hungary’s Foreign Policy:

The striking growth in the influence of Orbán’s regime in the 2010s was due to the flawed EU system which gives the smallest countries vetoes over decisions. They exploited this to the utmost with aggressive rhetoric and political manoeuvres. But for the Eastern autocratic powers, ‘little Hungary’ was only of interest as long as it sat at the same table as the most important decision-makers. These régimes made the most of Orbán’s ‘double-step’ diplomatic dance: they took advantage of a greedy, corrupt government to help divide the EU. The Hungarian autocracy, therefore, represented a threat to European integration. Hungary became an unreliable, perpetually revisionist partner.

But Vladimir Putin’s bloody war against Ukraine has shown clearly how restricted Hungary’s room for manoeuvre is in today’s rules-based world. Seeing Orbán’s reluctance and hesitation in standing by Ukraine, his central European allies have fallen away, especially Poland, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to opposition to Putin. But Hungary has lost its leadership of the Visegrád group of the five central European nations. Hungary’s overdependence on Russian energy gave Orbán a severe headache, as his country is both an established member of NATO and a full, though an increasingly isolated member state of the EU. In February 2022, with NATO and EU members rapidly converging and unifying in opposition to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Hungary had finally arrived at a crossroads and had to choose between its membership of the EU and NATO on the one hand and its support for the Russian autocracy on the other. A year on, Orbán continues to balance, precariously, on the fence.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission since 2019.

On the eve of the anniversary of Putin’s all-out invasion, Ursula von der Leyen sent the following message to the Ukrainian President and his people:

“We have been with you in this existential fight from the beginning. Ukraine has become the centre of our continent. The place where our values are upheld, where our freedom is defended, where the future of Europe is written. Слава Україні.”

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the @EU_Commission. 23 February 2023.

Looking forward, the effects and outcomes of the war in Ukraine are likely to further weaken Hungary’s roles in both international organisations, making them increasingly untenable, especially in the context of the Orbán government’s continuing issues in meeting the rule of law requirements of EU membership. Equally, its continual refusal to send or allow military aid to cross its territory to arm Ukraine may lead to eventual ‘retribution’ from NATO allies, including the USA. Either way, its international diplomatic relations within the transcontinental and transatlantic alliances will undoubtedly suffer long-term damage. That includes the UK, its first and strongest western ally in post-Soviet times, which is already seeking to improve its relations with its continental neighbours. If Ukraine wins the war, it is likely to gain access to EU membership in due course, perhaps by the end of the decade, perhaps sooner, and to become a strong liberal-democratic state within the bloc.

A poster outside Parliament in 2021, before the invasion, showing how unpopular Boris Johnson was until the war seemed to give him a lifeline, but he was forced to resign after a series of scandals continued in 2022. Britain’s relations with the EU have improved recently, due to cooperation over Ukraine.

No doubt Orbán’s autocratic régime will remain a serious challenge for Hungary’s European partners, at least until the next elections in 2026 by which time the outcome of Putin’s imperial war may be known. Although some steps have been taken by the European institutions to sanction the hard-line government in Budapest over its rule of law violations, the EU itself still lacks coherent and strategic policies to push back against autocracy both within the bloc and at its borders. However, Russia’s war in Ukraine has so far served as a warning sign for Europe’s complacent political élite that history does not progress like a consistently rising straight line on a graph, and that the turbulent geopolitical forces now in play must not be allowed to inhibit visionary thinking for an integrated European Union. Above all, if this war is to be won, the transcontinental alliance must not allow Trojan horses to be deployed among the allied European nations. It cannot rely on the USA’s involvement beyond the 2024 Presidential elections; it must work out its own strategic salvation, and that of Ukraine, before that.

Published Sources:

Zsuzsanna Szelényi (2022), Tainted Democracy: Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Rudolf Joó (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Susan Kovalik Tully, et. al. (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington D. C.: US Department of State Publications

Bencsik Gábor (2015), Magyarország Alaptörvénye (2012. január 1.). Budapest: Magyar Közlöny Lap- és Könyvkiadó Kft.

Online articles by this author:

Orbán’s Hungary – a member of NATO or Putin’s Fifth Column?: Hungarian Foreign Policy and Euro-Atlantic Integration, 1989-2019.

Who are the Ukrainians? Mythology & History, Part II: 1801-2001 – From Napoleon’s Empire to end of Empires?

Who are the Ukrainians? Mythology & History, Part I, 862-1796: Kyivan Rus & Cossacks; Great Powers & Empires.


Old Gold, ‘Golden Team’ & Ballon d’Or: The Globalisation of Football & The Legendary Career of Flórián Albert, 1953-93.

The ‘Magical Magyars’:

As I was born in June 1957, I have no personal recollection of the Hungarian national ‘Golden Team’ (Aranycsapat) of the early fifties that began a new era of football with their famous 6-3 and 7-1 victories over England, never before beaten at home in the ninety years of the Football Association. Nor was I at Molineux, the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Billy Wright’s club team, for the friendly floodlit visits of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ of Honvéd and MTK (‘Red Banner’) of 1954-56. Nevertheless, as soon as I was able to go to matches with my father, I heard all the legends from him and from my uncle and cousin who were ‘present’ for these games and either watched them at Molineux, the Wolves’ stadium or live on the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) Canteen television during National Service. By the 1966-1967 season, following the enthusiasm generated by England’s World Cup win, I became both a fan of the Wolves and ‘football mad’ in general. It was then that I became familiar with the name Ferencváros FC and of their star player, Flórián Albert (pictured below), who won the coveted French award of the Ballon d’Or for that season.

Spanning Revolutions – Hungarian Football, 1954-1989:

The two matches of 1953-54 were results and performances that radically changed everything the world of football in general and England in particular, the home of football, had until then thought about the game. This was a time when the former colonies of the British Empire were undergoing national awakenings and becoming independent and they were therefore delighted with the outcome. The Eastern bloc countries were also exuberant, celebrating it, at first, as a victory for socialism over imperialism in the early years of the Cold War. Ironically, for many Hungarians, however, Stalin’s death that spring and the resultant thawing in Soviet policy towards its satellites meant that the Hungarian leaders could no longer ignore or resist the calls for greater fraternisation with western associations and clubs. These, they knew, were controversial and even dangerous developments, running alongside the political changes that were already taking place in Hungary. When these changes were ended abruptly in 1956, the footballing contacts continued, despite the worst efforts of the restored Stalinist régime, until they re-emerged with the demands for a more liberal society and state in the 1980s.

These pendants were presented to Ferenc Puskás by his club Honvéd after his 75th goal for the team in 1955.

When Hungary began to emerge from behind its iron curtain twenty years later, these sporting links were among the first to be recalled and revived. As a boys’ football coach and player for the Binley Park teachers’ team in Coventry in the mid-1980s, when I was asked to develop an ‘East-West’ educational exchange programme, it was natural to look to Hungary. On arrival in Kecskemét, Coventry’s twin town on the Great Plain, I was interviewed by the local press and asked what ordinary people in the Midlands of England now knew about Hungary. I was surprised when my answer was used as the paper’s next front-page headline. Hungary was now ‘Not just goulash, Puskás, and 1956’. Compared with other countries in the ‘Eastern Bloc’, the roles of football players, sports people and other international artists were instrumental in maintaining a continuity of contacts throughout the Cold War. Ferenc Puskás’s autobiography in English became a bestseller in Britain in 1955 and was translated into various other languages.

The season 1953-54 was the zenith of success of the Aranycsapat, and I have written about the matches in other articles, listed below… But what is not so well known is that, behind the scenes, team unity had come undone for the first time, although supporters knew nothing about it at the time. The day before the second match at the Népstadion (the newly-built national stadium), the team management, led by the communist state-appointed Gusztáv Sebes, had handed out bonuses at the team’s hotel on the city’s Margaret Island.

The well-established players received substantial, but strongly differing amounts, which came to light almost immediately. The reason for the difference was the result of ill-judged political discrimination. The former Ferencváros players – Budai, Czibor and Kocsis received the smallest and disproportionate amounts, even less than the squad players, while the two long-serving Kispest Honvéd players who held the highest military ranks, Puskás and Bozsik, received the most. Of course, they themselves could do nothing about the injustice, and it was left to Czibor and Kocsis to let their feet make their protest in the match against England. When they stepped on the pitch, they played with a kind of “we’ll show them” determination. But the management had already begun what became a divide-and-rule strategy towards the players, facilitating the formation of cliques within the team.

After the final, Puskás congratulated the winning captain, Fritz Walter.

Following the dramatic 6-3 and 7-1 defeats of England in the 1953-54 season, the Mighty Magyars began their magical progress to the World Cup final in Bern, Switzerland, the following summer, where they were unlucky to be defeated 3-2 by the West Germans. People took to the streets of Budapest to vent their dissatisfaction at the defeat of their ‘Golden team’. There was no TV in Hungary at the time, but the final was broadcast on the radio from the Népstadion, and it was from there that thousands marched together towards the centre of Budapest. Shop windows were smashed and streetcars overturned before finally, the angry masses reached the building of Magyar Rádio, the state broadcaster, where they handed in a petition stating that the team ‘manager’ Gustáv Sebes shouldn’t dare return home after the ignominious failure. The spontaneous demonstration was quickly dispersed, the ringleaders arrested, and the press silenced over the whole event. But a huge grandstand being erected on Hősök tér (Heroes’ Square) had to be rapidly abandoned. And in one night, the State Security apparatus destroyed two million postage stamps the post offices were due to receive on the following Monday morning. They had ‘commemorating the victory achieved at the Fifth World Cup Finals’ printed on them.

Puskás in action v West Germany in the Bern final.

But something of a ‘football revolution’ began in 1954-56 in Hungary. For the first time under the harsh régime of Mátyás Rákosi and Gérő, the anger of the terrorised, destitute and starving Hungarians turned upon their political leaders, who had beforehand and for years basked in the successes of the footballers. These footballers, coaches and players also felt the disappointment and loss of confidence, and police kept a precautionary eye on Puskás’s flat for a couple of weeks just in case. Despite the loss in the final, however, FIFA had chosen him as the player of the tournament, and there was no apparent threat to his safety or that of his family from the people of Budapest. They did not blame him for the defeat, but rather the team’s communist party ‘managers’. As the historian, Tibor Fischer put it recently:

‘Hungarians don’t mind dictatorship, but they hate losing a football match.’

T. Fischer, Under the Frog.

The communist leaders of Hungarian sport: Gusztáv Sebes (speaking) and István Kutas.

The 1954 World Cup final result really did constitute a turning point in the history of both Hungarian football and society at large. This was the first time that ‘ordinary’ Hungarians could test out when and how they could express raise their heads above the parapet. But the devastating effects of this single sporting event were more palpable over a prolonged period than they were in the short term. Indeed, the régime no longer wished to employ its misfiring political musket and the sport itself fell out of favour. In addition to this, the football-supporting party leaders also fell from grace and, as János Kádár rose to power, especially after the Soviet-backed counter-revolution in 1956, Hungarian football went into a slow decline. But in the two seasons of 1954-56, the Aránycsapat soon found their form again and followed up on their four-year undefeated run before the Bern débácle by going on another magnificent stretch over the next eighteen months. In the autumn of 1954, they beat Romania 5-1 and then, after a 1-1 draw with the USSR in Moscow, defeated the Swiss 3-0 and Czechoslovakia 4-1, both in Budapest, before taking on the Scots in Glasgow, beating them 4-2.

Anglo-European Club Nights & International Friendlies, 1954-58:

The defeats of 1953-54 were still fresh in the minds of English fans when, in December 1954, the ‘Mighty Magyars’ club team of the Hungarian Army, ‘Honved’, arrived in Wolverhampton. Their team contained many stars from the national, ‘Golden team’, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Ferenc Puskás and his well-drilled fellow soldiers, Bozsik, Kocsis, Lóránt, Czibor and Budai. Kocsis had been the leading scorer in the World Cup, so, following their own sensational win over Moscow Spartak a month earlier, the first-time English Champions ‘Wolves’ were eager to welcome the tormentors of England to Molineux. It was good news for Wolves that ace goalkeeper Grosics, though named in the pre-match line-up (see below), was not available for selection by Honvéd, but they were probably unaware that this was because, as a soldier, he had been disciplined, ‘banned’ and ‘exiled’ from the club by the communist authorities in Hungary. The team was well-chaperoned by officials, which was symptomatic of the political cloud that had hung over Hungarian football ever since the team’s surprise defeat by West Germany in the final in Bern in the summer of that year and their victimisation of Grosics was meant to send a clear warning shot to both the Honvéd soldiers and the rest of the national team.

The game was played under the new floodlights on a Monday night, 13th December, with 55,000 cheering fans watching at the ground and many more on the new phenomenon of TV. The BBC broadcast the game live, which pleased the National Servicemen who were allowed to watch it in their canteens. Millions more tuned in to the radio, as not many people had acquired TV sets at this time. Just as they had twice led out their national teams in 1953/4, Billy Wright and Ferenc Puskás were again side-by-side (pictured below). Wolves came out in their specially-made satin shirts while Honvéd wore their traditional tracksuits. But it was Puskás’ team that first began to ‘dazzle’ under the lights.

Honvéd visiting Molineux

The visitors immediately began to play with fantastic ball control and speed of passing. The press reported that ‘despite being a bit on the chunky side, Puskás was surprisingly very quick’. However, ‘it was his mesmerising skill with the ball that was so wonderful to see’. By half-time, Honvéd were 2-0 up and in full control, their precision passing and speed of attack drawing gasps of appreciation from the crowd. The first goal came from a pin-point Puskás free kick which found the head of Kocsis and the ball flew past Bert Williams in the Wolves’ goal like a bullet. This was followed up by a second from the speedy winger, Machos, who was put through the Wolves’ defence by Kocsis. That was in the first quarter-hour! England keeper Williams pulled off a string of saves to keep the score down to two at the interval. As the teams left the field, the crowd rose to salute the Hungarian artistry but were worried that the home team might be humiliated in the second half, just as England had been at Wembley a year earlier. What happened, however, was more like a repeat of the Bern final between Hungary and West Germany.

Bert Williams, England and Wolverhampton goalkeeper, in training.

In the second half, the Wolves called upon all their fighting spirit and energy reserves. Johnny Hancocks scored a penalty soon after the restart, walloping the ball past Farago’s left hand, and with fifteen minutes left, the skilful Hungarians were tiring on what had become a very muddy pitch. Dennis Wilshaw combined well with Roy Swinbourne, who scored twice to win the game 3-2. The crowd went wild with joy on a night on which it became good to be an English football fan once more. They were singing all the way home on the bus, and there were great celebrations in the canteens where the National Servicemen were watching. Their morale had also been boosted by this victory. Wolves’ archivist Graham Hughes recounted:

Billy Wright in action for the Wolves.

The shadowy Hungarian Vice-Minister for Sport who attended the match said that the game had been a clean-spirited fight and praised Wolves’ fighting qualities. Apparently, he did not mention Grosics’s absence and the political ‘cloud’ hanging over the club, or that many of its players were tired from playing for the national team against Scotland only five days earlier. Other Hungarians complained about the pitch, which was far from dry at the beginning of the match and was further watered at half-time at the request of Stan Cullis, the Wolves head coach, who later admitted this. This had the effect of slowing down the play, favouring the Wolves’ long-ball tactics. ‘Wolves are champions of the world’ was one of the headlines in the national newspapers the next morning. However, if this was seen as ‘revenge’ for the ‘dents’ in national pride that the defeats of the previous season had inflicted, this was also a friendly match, since the European Champions’ Cup had not yet come into being. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and others would have something to say about that claim in future seasons. Certainly, for the time being, at least, the club’s prestige had been taken to a higher level than ever before as Wolves gave English football a much-needed boost. Meanwhile, Hungarian football continued to be manipulated by its communist ‘handlers’.

In the spring of 1955, after a 2-2 draw with Austria in a European Cup match in Vienna, the Hungarian national team undertook a tour of Scandinavia, handing out thrashings to all four, concluding with a 9-1 victory over Finland. Then, when the Scots paid a return visit to Budapest in May, they were beaten 3-1 by their hosts. In the second half of the year, they came from behind in Lausanne with two late goals from Puskás to beat the Swiss 5-4 in the European Cup and won three more cup matches in the year, including a 6-1 thrashing of Austria in Budapest, the hundredth meeting between the two neighbouring national teams.

The official programme for the hundredth match between Hungary and Austria at the National Stadium in Budapest; the cover picture is from the match in Vienna the previous April.

Puskás shoots against Austria; on the right is a celebration menu for the after-match supper.

They finished the year with an impressive 2-0 victory over Italy, but then, on 19th February 1956, in terrible winter conditions, they suffered an unexpected 3-1 defeat at the hands of Turkey in Istanbul. In those days, Turkey was not highly respected as a footballing nation. Although Puskás scored the consolation goal, he was no longer the Puskás of 1953-54, already struggling with weight problems. There was a good deal of speculation that he would soon be dropped from the national team and might even retire. The team continued to suffer unexpected defeats in the first half of the year, and produced more unacceptable performances, drawing 2-2 with Yugoslavia in Budapest in a European Cup game and losing to Belgium in Brussels. Gusztáv Sebes had been becoming increasingly unpopular since the Bern disaster and had also been losing political influence. He was ousted after the 2-2 draw with Portugal in Lisbon and replaced with Márton Bukovi, an excellent, expert coach. He was the MTK coach and a member of Sebes’s coaching staff.

A postcard picture of the Népstadion to mark the hundredth match with neighbours Austria.
A photograph which appeared in the Wembley programme for the FA’s November 1953 international.

The completion of the half-finished Népstadion did not come to pass until 2006, fifty years after the Uprising. It became a symbol of Hungarian football’s loss of prestige, and the Party reached a decision which led to much criticism that instead of spoilt footballers the hardworking athletes of other sports should be supported. In reality, this implied ‘pampering’ consisted of a humiliating system whereby, despite being among the finest players in the world, ‘élite’ footballers didn’t receive any official income other than the paltry bonuses which topped up their basic workplace wages. To keep them from defecting to the West, the authorities turned a blind eye to them bringing back goods from their international sojourns which could be sold for a tidy profit on the black market. In many cases, the players were positively encouraged in this smuggling by politicians. Customs checks were regularly omitted by border guards in return for petty bribes. However, at the first sign of failure, the fickle leaders began blackmailing the players who had become accustomed to such ‘solutions’. They ordered arrests of players, including house arrests, banned them from playing, and in some cases instituted internal exiles, such as that of the Honvéd and national team goalkeeper, Gyúla Grosics, who was sent to the mining town of Tatabánya in 1954.

Although the national team continued its winning streak in these seasons, partly out of the financial imperatives facing its players, behind the scenes the players were losing real motivation under this system. Even Puskás was subject to this since he bought his first family house in the Zugló district of Budapest shortly before the 1954 World Cup. He could only keep up the mortgage payments if the team kept winning and he was therefore able to earn his win bonuses. The increasingly anti-football dictatorship continued to humiliate the footballers, whose popularity they envied. As long as they and their families continued to have a better standard of living than the average person in the country, the footballers did not rebel openly.

Ferenc Puskás with his daughter, Anikó

The second half of 1956 began with a fantastic five-match winning streak, Bukovi bringing Grosics back into the team from ‘exile’ and giving Puskás an ultimatum to slim down or be left out. After beating Poland, Yugoslavia, the USSR, France and Austria, the team was preparing for their next match against Sweden at their training camp in Tata in late autumn when a student demonstration became an armed uprising in Budapest. The players returned to Budapest to be with their families and Zoltán Czibor became directly involved in the revolutionary cause. The Honvéd sportsmen elected him as president of the army sports club’s revolutionary committee. The Honvéd players were due to play Athletico Bilbao in the European Cup on 22nd November, and Czibor arranged the squad’s passports with Imre Nagy’s government once, after a few days, the ‘revolution’ seemed to have been successful. On 1st November, the squad set off to prepare for their match.

Following in the wake of MTK, who had participated the previous year as league champions, Honvéd were competing for the first time. Accompanied by the solidarity and compassion of western Europeans, the team played matches across the continent for charity and to cover their own expenses. They donned black armbands and tore out the red star from the Honvéd (army sports cub) badges on their shirts. Then, on 4th November, more than a thousand tanks streamed into Hungary across the eastern border from the USSR to replace the ones already neutralised or destroyed by the revolutionaries. The Honvéd players did everything they could to get their families out of the country to join them in the West, including Puskás’s wife, ‘Bözsike’, and his four-year-old daughter, Anikó, who managed to escape across the border on 1st December. They were reunited with Ferenc in Milan, where they spent Christmas with the rest of the team and their relatives. Because of the volatile situation in Budapest, the return leg of the match against Bilbao took place in Brussels on 20th December. The first had finished 3-2 to the Basques and the second ended in a 3-3 draw, an aggregate of 6-5 to them. Honvéd were out of the cup, but a lucrative tour of South America awaited.

Puskás in his Honvéd Sports Club colours, complete with a red star on the badge, which the players tore out on their 1956 tour.

For Kispest Honvéd, the ‘Golden’ club football team of the mid-fifties, the events of October-November 1956 brought a premature end to their glory days. They were touring at the time of the conflict, and many of the players decided against returning to their homeland, preferring instead to use their skills in western Europe. Almost exactly two years to the day after the match with Honved, on 11th December 1956, Wolves entertained ‘Red Banner’ or MTK Budapest, as they preferred to be known from now on, for another floodlit friendly. Although not as great a match in footballing terms, the game was, if anything, even more significant. It was held as a benefit match and raised what was then a huge sum of £2,312, to be donated to the Hungarian Relief Fund. At the pre-match banquet, the Hungarians, who had expressed their wish to be known by their original name of MTK, rather than ‘Red Banner’, had promised to play the very best football they could in honour of their gracious hosts. Responding, the Wolves Chairman told his guests that the motto of both the town of Wolverhampton and its football club was ‘out of darkness comes light’ and that he hoped that very soon that would be the way in their native land. They had to wait forty years for the light to shine through the gloom at home. Nevertheless, the match was a worthy contest, as the report below demonstrates.

MTK’s team was packed with Hungarian internationals, three of whom had played in the humiliating victories over England a few years earlier. They became only the second team to escape floodlit defeat at Wolves’ Molineux lair, demonstrating a brand of top-class individual football artistry. In the game itself, the Wolves gave the impression of holding something back. Certainly, they didn’t unleash the kind of power we had witnessed on previous occasions…. The rather subdued Molineux crowd, sensing this, produced what can only be described as ’the Molineux murmur’ instead of the customary ’roar’. The biggest cheer came when Johnny Hancocks replaced Jimmy Murray eight minutes from time. Everyone was looking for the little magician to provide a fairy-tale ending, but the winger only touched the ball three times… The wolves couldn’t break down the visitors’ defensive system, which was one of the coolest under pressure ever seen at Molineux.

The Hungarians took the lead in the sixth minute, Palotás whipping the ball past the diving Bert Williams following some excellent work by world-famous centre-forward Hidegkúti. Portsmouth schoolboy Pat Neil, making his debut for Wolves, saved their blushes and their proud unbeaten record under the Molineux floodlights. He scored the equaliser after Veres palmed away a corner. Neil was unmarked, having drifted outside the goal area: his smartly hit shot passed through the ruck of players to beat Veres to his left.… The cool, calculating football of MTK saw them too frequently guilty of trying one pass too many… At half-time, the talented Hidegkúti was replaced by Karasz. The game wasn’t exactly dull; there were chances at both ends. Both goalkeepers acquitted themselves well, making a string of acrobatic saves, but the solemnity of the occasion, set against the backdrop of the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Uprising, was really responsible for the fayre served up that night.

The day after the Molineux match, the MTK players were on their way to Vienna, where their future movements would be dictated by the course of political events in their stricken country. Meanwhile, the Honvéd players decided to accept the offer of travelling to Brazil in a deal negotiated by Emil Östreicher, the club’s technical director, in which Honvéd would play ten matches for $10,000 each match, plus travel and accommodation expenses. The Kádár government and the Hungarian Football Association did their best to stop the tour, sending Gusztáv Sebes to the team hotel to persuade the players to return to Hungary, but they decided to travel and, despite the threat of international sanctions, the Brazilians staged several games, which attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators.

The majority of the players returned to Hungary, as promised, in February. But Puskás, Czibor, Kocsis, coach Jenő Kalmár, and Östreicher, together with most of the Hungarian youth team, which had also been touring in the west, chose to remain abroad. Puskás chose emigration because, as captain, he would face at least a one-year ban when got home. In the end, he was banned for two years anyway, by FIFA, which was then dominated by many Eastern European associations. What was more of a concern to him, however, was that as an army officer he could be charged with absconding from his post, an offence punishable by death under Hungarian military law. The military tribunals had already tried refugee officers ‘in absentia’ and given sentences which the communist secret services had already carried out summary executions abroad.

Puskás and Kubala, friends since Kispest’s schoolboy matches in 1941, were now both exiles from their native land.

Puskás was, of course, protected to a certain extent by his fame and popularity, but with constant surveillance from the Hungarian secret service and his relatives remaining in Hungary, he couldn’t ‘rest at ease’. He rode out the ban for a time in Vienna, where he was allowed to train with Wiener SC. Still, he had no income and the only person to help him financially was the great Hungarian forward László Kubala, who had played with Puskás in a Schoolboy XI in Kispest in the early 1940s, and was a settled favourite at Barcelona. When Santiago Bernabéu, Real Madrid’s legendary president, invited Emil Östreicher to be his advisor in Madrid, Östreicher persuaded him to sign Puskás, despite his coach’s concerns that the Hungarian star was ‘over the hill’, unfit and conceited. Eventually, Puskás was given a four-year contract and a signing-on fee of $100,000 after he had lost sixteen kilograms in two months.

In October 1957, Wolverhampton Wanderers met Real Madrid in another floodlit friendly at Molineux. This was in the years when Puskás was banned from playing by FIFA, so he was not yet playing for the Spanish Champions alongside their mouth-watering mix of players from South America and France as well as from Spain. The Spanish giants had already dominated the first two years of the European Champions Cup, and would therefore be a stern test for Wolves. Real Madrid had already developed into a huge club by Santiago Bernabéu, whose vision had transformed a club with just sixteen thousand supporters into a footballing colossus. He had spotted the vast money-making potential of a premier European Cup competition and set out to develop the financial clout to buy the best players in the world.

In one of the most thrilling games ever witnessed at Molineux, Real’s footballers unveiled their artistry with the ball, giving a display of controlled athleticism and intuitive running off the ball to create space for their fellow players to move into. However, the Wolves came from behind to beat the maestros with their own display of long-range precision passing together with rapid attacking and approach play. Wolves went into the match in a confident mood after their recent victories over foreign opposition. But as with Honvéd, they allowed the Spanish team to get into the game; they probed away at the Wolves’ defence and finally got their reward when Marsal scored with a bullet-like header. But seven minutes after the break Broadbent equalised when Finlayson punted an enormous kick at the Madrid penalty area, which Murray headed on for Broadbent to lob home. On the hour, Wolves took the lead from a Norman Deeley corner from which Murray scored with a downward header. Then followed a nervy final twenty minutes when after Marsal scored again for Real, but then Dennis Wilshaw calmly lifted the ball over their keeper from Mullen’s corner with ten minutes left.

A Real Madrid Rosette from the late fifties.

So the Old Gold team ran out 3-2 winners again, as they had done against Honvéd, having beaten the pride of Europe, enhancing their own reputation once more as one of the world’s greatest club sides at that time and subduing, in the process, the great Argentinian Alfredo di Stéfano, though he went close with two shots, one of which brought out a fine diving save from Finlayson. The return match against Real Madrid was played under the fantastic Bernabéu floodlights on 11th December 1957, a year to the day since their match with MTK at Molineux and about three years since Honvéd had visited Wolverhampton. In those three short years, so much had happened in the lives of these four clubs.

Wolves produced another fighting performance, withstanding both heavy rain and heavy pressure from the Real players, who were set on revenge. However, it was the home team who were in danger of losing their five-year unbeaten record in Madrid. The only goal of the first half was scored by Bobby Mason for the Wolves, putting the visitors ahead on the half-hour mark with a powerful header. Mateo equalised for Real twenty-five minutes after the restart and in the seventies minute, Di Stéfano put the Spanish team ahead after running into a gap in Wolves’ defence to slot home from Kopa’s defence-splitting cross. But Wolves grabbed an equaliser when Jimmy Mullen’s cross was turned in by a defender’s boot. It finished as a 2-2 draw, but unhappy with some decisions, the Wolves fans felt they had scored a moral victory.

World Cups and European Champions Cups, 1958-62:
John Charles, pictured in 1954 at the match between Wales and Scotland at Ninian Park, Cardiff. (2023, February 8).
In Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Charleshttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/ce/John Charles

In the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, England’s team were defeated in the group play-offs by the USSR. The English side had been weakened by the Munich air disaster on 6th February, which killed three internationals on the books of Manchester United, including England’s young star Duncan Edwards. It was a tragedy which hit the whole country and the entire footballing world. However, Wales had qualified for the first time, with a strong forward line. The group match between Hungary and Wales in Sandviken became the northernmost World Cup match in history. It finished 1-1, with John Charles, then playing for Italian giants Juventus, scoring for Wales and Bozsik for Hungary, who were no longer the force they had been after in the previous tournament. The Hungarian team had been dealt a blow by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 after which star players like Sándor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskás fled their homeland in the wake of the failed uprising against the communist regime.

From the 1954 ‘Golden’ team, only goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, defender József Bozsik and forward Nándor Hidegkuti remained. But the latter was by now thirty-six years old and, although named as captain, was nowhere near his previous form, and was dropped to the substitutes’ bench for two of the four matches. But in spite of Hungary’s recent travails, they were still considered a strong side and were expected to advance from their group. The success of Wales was a surprise, but they drew all their group games and beat the Hungarians in a play-off match, with Ivor Allchurch scoring the first goal, equalising Lajós Tichy’s 33rd-minute strike before Terry Medwin scored the winner in the 76th minute. The Welsh were beaten by Pelé’s first World Cup goal in the quarter-final. This was the Welsh team’s first appearance at the FIFA World Cup and they would not qualify for another sixty-four years. This tournament also marked the debuts of fellow United Kingdom side Northern Ireland, as well as the Soviet Union.

Di Stéfano pictured with Puskás after the latter began playing for Real Madrid in 1958.

Meanwhile, Real Madrid had managed to persuade FIFA to shorten Puskas’s ban by six months so that he was able to begin the 1958-59 season alongside Alfredo di Stéfano, beginning his second career, which lasted until his retirement in 1966. In the course of this, besides his three winners’ medals in the European Cup, he came second in the 1960 Ballon d’Or competition, which he would probably have won had his own native country’s representatives and the other Eastern bloc FAs not voted against him as a ‘defector’ to the West.

Meanwhile, in 1958-59, the Old Gold of Wolverhampton had finished English First Division champions once again, qualifying them to compete in the European Champions Cup for the second time the following season. They hoped to recapture some of their devastating league form against foreign opposition. However, after their disappointing performance in the 1958-59 competition, losing on aggregate in the second round to FC Schalke, Wolves had to play a preliminary round against ASK Vorwaerts of East Berlin, winning 3-2 on aggregate at the end of September 1959. In the first round, they went on to beat Red Star Belgrade 4-1 over two legs. But then they came up against two of the most brilliant Hungarian exiles in the quarter-final against Barcelona, László Kubala and Sándor Kocsis, who between them scored five of the nine goals Barca netted against them over the two legs, Kocsis getting four of the five in the second leg in Wolverhampton. Czibor didn’t play in either leg, perhaps a sign of how talented the team was.

Billy Wright had retired at the end of the previous season and the new Wolves and England backline trio of Clamp, Slater and Flowers proved powerless to halt the fantastic flair of the Hungarian pair, especially Kocsis, in what was the last time Wolves played in the premier European competition. In a wonderful exhibition of running off the ball to create space for others to move into, the Catalan team out-thought and out-played the best team in England. There is no doubt that a huge doubt existed between the tactical sophistication of the top continental teams and their English challengers. In the two legs against Barcelona, Wolves’ traditional long-ball game had been exposed by intelligent defending behind inventive counter-attacking. Patience was now required when probing for an opening, and guile was more effective than bravery and enthusiasm. In the semi-final, the Catalan team was beaten 6-2 on aggregate by their great rivals Real Madrid, the eventual winners.

Wolves attacking the Blackburn goal in the 1960 FA Cup Final

By winning the 1960 FA Cup, beating Blackburn Rovers 3-0 in the final, Wolves at least ensured that they would be competing in Europe again in 1960-61, this time in the newly-created Cup Winners’ Cup. They lost 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-final to Glasgow Rangers but still finished third in the league behind Tottenham Hotspur, the first double winners.

Bill Slater is on his teammates’ shoulders holding the FA Cup.

Perhaps Puskás’s greatest club performance came in the 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final in which he scored four goals, a record for a club final. It was called Club Football’s Match of the Century and brought Real Madrid their third cup in as many years. After retiring as a player in 1966, and a third career as a coach, he was welcomed back to Hungary in 1981 as an honoured guest, but didn’t feel secure enough to return permanently until after the régime change of 1989.

Puskás with the 1960 European Cup winning team.
Kubala (centre) with special guests Alfredo di Stéfano (left) and Ferenc Puskás in a match held in his honour in 1961

Meanwhile, in the 1961-2 season, the wheels finally came off the ‘Wolverhampton omnibus’, as Wolves slipped to eighteenth in the First Division, their first time outside the top six in ten seasons. By the summer of 1962, the talented multi-trophy-winning Wanderers’ squad had all but broken up. In the summer of 1962, it was World Cup time again, in Chile. England lost their opening match 2-1 to Hungary, with their new star, Flórián Albert (see below). The newly naturalised Ferenc Puskás followed in the footsteps of Kubala in playing for his adoptive country (Kubala, pictured right, was included in the Spanish squad but was injured).

Puskás in action for Spain in the 1962 World Cup finals.

Spain had beaten Morocco 1-0, in Casablanca, in Puskás’ first match the previous November, but after losing to Czechoslovakia in their first group match at the World Cup, the Spanish team was eliminated by Brazil, 2-1. Ron Flowers was England’s only Wolverhampton representative at the tournament, and, after recovering from a 2-1 defeat to Hungary in their opening match, the English team were also, eventually, beaten 3-1 by holders Brazil in the quarter-finals.

The Return of Honvéd to Molineux, December 1962:

Wolves kicked off their 1962/63 season in fine style, thumping Manchester City 8-1 at Molineux. Ted Farmer, their number nine, scored four of these goals, and the Wolves were unbeaten after their first eleven fixtures. In that time they scored thirty-one goals and conceded only thirteen in a sequence of eight wins and three draws. Farmer scored eight goals in nine games, missing only two matches until received an injury in September. At that time, the Wolves were topping the First Division table, but Farmer only recovered in time to play in the final three matches of the season. By then, the tide had turned against his team and the title had been lost. Wolves finished a disappointing fourth, given their remarkable start to the season, but it was a lot better placing than they had achieved in the previous season. One of the highlights of the season was the 7-0 thrashing of Black Country neighbours West Bromwich Albion on 6th March 1963. In December 1962, Wolves once again entertained Honvéd at Molineux, completing ten years of floodlit friendlies from September 1953 onwards. There was no clamour for tickets this time like there had been eight years earlier when Wolves had defeated Honvéd 3-2.

Admission for this match played on 3rd December 1962, was ‘pay on the night’. The Hungarian teams, both local and national, were no longer the pride of Europe, due largely to the exodus of their players after the Soviet Union’s crushing of the October 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Gone were the likes of the legendary Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, and their talented countrymen, among hundreds of thousands of more ordinary citizens who became refugees at that time. But Honvéd were currently second in Hungary’s top division and so would provide robust if friendly, opposition. Újpest Dózsa occupied the top place in the Hungarian league, with MTK (‘Red Banner’) in third. Flowers, Slater and Broadbent were happy to renew old acquaintances. Two of the members of the 1954 Honvéd team had returned to Molineux: József Bozsik was now the club president and Gyula Lóránt was the club coach. Lájos Farago, who as the understudy goalkeeper to the great Grósics, had played such a storming role in his previous appearance at Molineux, would be in goal again.

The teams were:

Wolves: Davies; Showell, Thomson; Kirkham, Slater, Flowers; Wharton, Crowe, Murray, Broadbent, Hinton.

Honvéd: Farago; Levai, Morosi, Dudás; Perecsi, Kotasz; Nagy, Komora, Nógrádi, Tuschinger, Vági.

Attendance: 13,914.

The game bore little resemblance to the classic encounter of 1954. Many of the fans had stayed at home, perhaps anticipating this, but also because it was a bitterly cold night. Farago was once again magnificent, earning the accolade of Star of the Show. He stopped everything Wolves threw at him, except one effort from Wednesbury lad Alan Hinton, who could easily have had a hat-trick by the hour mark. Other Wolves’ strikers missed a hatful of chances before Honvéd’s speedy winger Vági broke away dangerously. He fluffed his chance, but the omens were not good for the Wolves. Next, it took an excellent, headed, off-the-line clearance by Bobby Thomson to keep the visitors out. Then, with only five minutes left, Komora chipped the ball over magnificently for György Nagy to score what he must have thought was the winner. Fortunately, Hinton crashed home a terrific equaliser with only three minutes left, thus earning a 1-1 draw. After the match, Bozsik announced that he wanted to make this fixture an annual event, and a year later the two teams met again in Budapest.

At Molineux in this decade from 1953 to 1962, Wolves had played a total of seventeen games against teams from other European leagues, winning thirteen and drawing four. They also played in six home ties in European competitions, winning three, drawing two and losing only once, to Barcelona. In the following season, Wolves travelled to Budapest to play the promised return friendly against Honvéd on Wednesday 6th October 1963, this time losing 2-1 in the Népstadion. In fine weather, a crowd of nearly thirty-one thousand witnessed a quiet game that the Wolves were lucky only to lose by the odd goal. Tuschinger and Komora netted for Honvéd before Ray Crawford pulled one back for the Wolves. Wolves clearly missed a number of players from the previous season, including Bill Slater and Peter Broadbent.

In the rest of that season, there were many other changes at the club, and ultimately Wolves plummeted to sixteenth place in the First Division. They had to face the obvious fact, like Honvéd, that their current team without their old stars was just not good enough to challenge for the Championship or even the European qualifying places. In particular, although they kept scoring in the early sixties, they had not compensated at the back for Billy Wright’s retirement in the 1959-60 season and they were leaking goals. Then, despite new signing Crawford’s twenty-six goals from thirty-eight games, they managed only seventy in total in 1963-64. The team’s performance worsened the following season, resulting in relegation from the First Division in 1965.

‘Fradi’ &The Wanderers Return to Europe, 1971-72:

Derek Dougan

The ‘Old Gold’ had to wait another decade to shine again against continental opposition under the lights at Molineux. In the interim, they suffered relegation from the First Division and spent two seasons in the Second Division, until finishing second to Coventry at the end of the 1966/67 season, winning promotion back to the top flight. Wolves had acquired some brilliant attacking players, including Derek Dougan, ‘the Doog’, Peter Knowles and Dave Wagstaffe. In January 1968 they were joined by Frank Munro, to play in midfield at first, but then in the centre of defence where he was outstanding for both Wolves and Scotland. But with floodlit friendlies now a thing of the past, it was not until finishing fourth in the First Division in the 1970/71 season that they were able to qualify for the UEFA Cup, renamed from the Inter-City Fairs Cup.

Frank Munro

The fans looked forward to being back in Europe and in this competition, Wolves took on and beat some of the most illustrious teams, starting with the Portuguese club Academia Coimbra in the first round. They then went on to beat FC Den Haag and Carl Zeiss Jena, before meeting Juventus in the Quarter Final. They beat the Italian giants 3-2 on aggregate. In the Semi-final they were to play the Hungarian aces Ferencváros and their great centre-forward Flórián Albert. The first leg was played on a beautiful, sunny late afternoon in April 1972, in the Nepstadion where they had last met Honvéd. The attendance was 44,763 and kick-off was at 5.30 p.m. Wolves managed to maintain their excellent away form in the competition, drawing a hard-fought game, 2-2. They showed a determined effort after their brilliant young striker John Richards had put them ahead after nineteen minutes. Derek Dougan cleverly drew the defenders away before back-healing the ball back to Richards, who didn’t miss.

John Richards

Ferencváros came back strongly, however, scoring two in eight minutes. István Szőke got the first on the half-hour from the penalty spot, and then the Magyars took a two-goal lead. Flórián Albert netted from open play, shooting past Phil Parkes following Szőke’s tempting cross, making it 2-1 to ‘Fradi’ at half-time. At seventy-four minutes, the home team was awarded another penalty, but this time Parkes magnificently saved Szőke’s shot with his left foot. The Budapest team went close again when Kű headed just over. The Wolves then rallied and won a corner. Dave Wagstaffe swung the ball in and Frank Munro was perfectly placed to nod home the equaliser. After that, Kenny Hibbitt and Jimmy McCalliog smacked in powerful shots, but they didn’t result in a winning goal. The Wolves had almost three times the number of efforts on goal as the home team but the two sides went into the return leg on equal terms. The two teams in Budapest were as follows:

Ferencváros: Vörös; Novák, Pancsícs; Megyesi, Vépi, Bálint; Sőke, Bránkovics, Albert, Kű, Múcha (Rákósi). Subs: Rákósi, Fusi, Hórváth, Géczi.

Wolves: Parkes; Shaw, Taylor; Hegan, Munro, McAlle; McCalliog, Hibbitt, Richards, Dougan, Wagstaffe. Subs: Arnold, Parkin, Daley, Sunderland, Eastoe.

Phil Parkes in action at Molineux.

Front cover of the programme for the second leg at Molineux.

The second leg was held at Molineux a fortnight later on 19th April 1972 in front of a disappointingly small crowd (for a European semi-final) of just over twenty-eight thousand. The Wolves were determined not to lose this semi-final as they had their last in Europe, against Glasgow Rangers in 1961. Phil Parkes (pictured above) was once again outstanding, Alan Sunderland came in at right back for the suspended Shaw, and Steve Daley, aged eighteen, made his European debut in place of the also-suspended Dave Wagstaffe. New boy Daley’s dream came true when he put Wolverhampton ahead in the first minute. Goalkeeper Vörös missed Sunderland’s high floating cross, the ball falling to Daley. Just before half-time, up popped Frank Munro as he had in the away leg to put the home team 2-0 up. Lájos Kű pulled a goal back for ‘Fradi’ two minutes after the interval and then Phil Parkes saved another penalty from Szőke with his leg. It was a very entertaining game, worthy of a final, in which Daley and Hibbitt went close, Dougan hit the bar and Sunderland sent in a thirty-yard screamer before Taylor cleared a József Múcha effort off the line. Wolves won a close match 2-1 and tie 4-3 on aggregate.

Sixty-four clubs had initially set out to contest the competition, so it was testimony to the strength of English football that two First Division clubs reached the final. Unfortunately for Wolves, the other team was Tottenham Hotspur, one of their cup bogey teams. Wolves lost their home tie 2-1, Martin Chivers scoring both goals for the visitors, and the second leg was drawn 1-1, so the cup went to Spurs. Wolves should have won their first European trophy, and the 3-2 aggregate score over the two legs was not a fair reflection of the games, according to many media reports the day after the match at White Hart Lane. Dave Wagstaffe’s equalising goal in the forty-first minute was one of the greatest goals ever scored by a man in the golden shirt. It was said by those present to be better than the one he scored in the 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal at Molineux the previous November which had won the BBC’s Goal of the month competition.

Memorabilia from the UEFA Cup Final versus Tottenham Hotspur. on display in the Wolves trophy cabinet.

Although the Wanderers’ 1971-72 European Campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, it seems curious that it is not remembered at least as favourably as the floodlit friendly matches of 1953-54 against Honvéd in the club’s annals. In many ways, the Wolves’ victory against Ferencváros in the semi-final of the UEFA Cup, a real competition, can be seen as the pinnacle of the Old Golds’ distinguished history. Their team that season was perhaps as great as the one that faced Honvéd in 1954, especially in its forward line, though Billy Wright’s defence will always be remembered as the finest ever to take the field for his club and for England. In what was their first European cup final, the fact that their opponents were Tottenham, though a star-studded team themselves, made it seem less of a European final. The game against Ferencváros had been much more of a transcontinental clash, with Florián Albert and other stars in the ‘Fradi’ team.

The Emperor – The Career and Legacy of Flórián Albert, 1959-74:

On 24 September 2021, the Ferencvárosi Torna Club (FTC Budapest) organised an interactive exhibition in honour of their great striker at the FTC stadium. Albert’s career-long contribution to Fradi and Hungarian football has been somewhat under-rated compared with that of Puskás and his Arany Csapat (‘Golden Team’) at Honvéd. Still, the exhibition of ‘the Emperor’s’ most valuable artefacts covered an area of almost three hundred square metres. The main attraction was of course the Ballon d’Or, which he won in 1967. The objects of the exhibition and career of Albert have been recorded in the book, Albert 80: The Legacy of the One and Only Hungarian Ballon d’Or Winner, published in a bilingual edition in Hungary for what would have been his eightieth birthday. I have attempted to highlight and summarise some of the main points of this below.

Flórián Albert was born on 15th September 1941 in Hercegszántó, a village in the south of Bács-Kiskun county, close to the then Yugoslav border, and died seventy years later on 30th October 2011 in Budapest. From 1959 to 1974, he played 540 times for Ferencváros, scoring 395 goals. Fifty-eight of these matches were international, in which he scored thirty-five goals. He won four Hungarian championships with Fradi, between 1962 and 1968, and the Hungarian Cup in 1971-72, scoring the winning goal in the eighty-fourth minute. Before that, he was a member of the 1962-63 Inter-City Fairs Cup semi-finalist team, the 1964-65 winning team and the 1967-68 finalists, besides the 1971-72 UEFA Cup semi-finalist team. He also played seventy-five times for the national eleven, scoring thirty-one goals. He was an Olympic bronze medallist in 1960, and a World Cup participant in 1962 (three matches, four goals) and 1966 (four matches). He also played two matches for Hungary in each of the 1964 and 1972 European Championships, finishing third and fourth respectively. Besides these achievements, he was given a string of honours and awards, though none to match the Ballon d’Or as Best Footballer of Europe in 1967.

Flórián started primary school as a half-orphan; his mother had died in his early years and he was raised by his father. Growing up in multilingual Hercegszántó, it was natural for him to learn Serbo-Croat in addition to Hungarian. He then left his village, feverish with Slavic ‘buzz’, together with his family, in 1952, to live in Erzsébetváros in the capital city. For an eleven-year-old boy from deeply rural Hungary, this was a huge shift in location and culture. After finishing his primary education, he attended Imre Madách Grammar School (gimnázium) in the seventh district of Budapest. He joined the Ferencváros youth team at the time of the 1954 World Cup Final in Bern, and two years later he could see that the key players, many originally from Fradi, but then playing for Honvéd, had already left the country after the Soviet invasion. In the late fifties and early sixties, it was not an easy thing to wear the Hungarians’ cherry red jersey. It was only a few years earlier that the Kocsis team had appeared, and ultimately disappointed, in the 1954 World Cup final. The Aranycsapat had then disintegrated after the Soviet invasion of 1956, with several members, including Ferenc Puskás, emigrating. The legendary Golden team was over for good and the national team lost a lot of respect at the 1958 World Cup tournament in Sweden.

Albert, on his introduction to the Hungarian national team in 1959.

By the end of the fifties, Flórián had matured into a forward at Ferencváros and with the Hungarian national team. He passed the secondary school matriculation exam which he needed in order to join the senior Hungarian national team. He was not even eighteen when he could claim, without arrogance, to be “one of the best forwards in the world.” But Flórian Albert was still known as little Flóri when he made his début for the national team against Sweden, not even yet eighteen, but awarded a place in the national line-up next to Gyula Grosics and Károly Sándor. Lajos Baróti’s team won 3-2. Albert did not score in that match, but goals came in his third appearance for the national team when he netted a hat-trick against Yugoslavia.

Before Albert’s début for Ferencváros. Flórián is in the centre of this group of FTC players with Horváth, Győri-Kiss and Mátrai on his right and Kiss III, Vilezsál and Berta to his left. Fradi beat DVTK 3-1, with two goals from Albert and one from Rákosi (out of the picture).

Flórika became a player at Ferencváros Torna Club during one of the most difficult times in the Club’s history, when it was called Kinizsi, and had been abandoned by its most influential footballers, under duress from the Kádár régime to move to the army team, Kispest Honvéd. Those who remained kept Fradi alive in a period when it became a team of ‘the people’. Talent made its way, as ever, under any circumstances, and even in the enclosed Hungary of these difficult years, when it was still licking its wounds after the events of 1956, it was suddenly enlightened by a bright new star, who went on to light up the old, tired continent, and then the whole world. But Florika never forgot the difficult times his club and its fans had endured, and never left it. Neither money nor power could alter his mind and drag him away. Although he would not have been out of place in the 1950s ‘Golden Team’ and foreign clubs would have given anything for him, he played only for the fans of Ferencváros.

In November 1958, Albert was introduced to the senior Ferencváros team.

The 1960 Rome Olympic Games were Albert’s first major adult world competition, then still ahead of his nineteenth birthday. The Hungarian team beat India 2-1, Peru 6-1 and France 7-0. In the semi-finals, they were beaten 2-0 by the Danes, but in the bronze match, they defeated the Italians 2-1, returning home with a medal. The young Albert played in all five matches, from start to finish, scoring a goal against India and a double-brace against Peru and France, thus finishing the five games with five goals.

Playing for the national team in Rome, in 1960.

The 1960 Rome Olympics Bronze medal

Two years after Rome, Albert appeared in his first World Cup in Chile, where the Hungarian team played four matches, of which Albert played three from start to finish. He scored in the 2-1 defeat of England and took his fair share of goals in the 6-1 win over Bulgaria, scoring a hat-trick. He didn’t start in the last group match against the Argentinians but was again in the line-up in the quarter-final when the Magyars were beaten by Czechoslovakia. With four goals in the tournament, he became its joint top scorer.

His 1964 gold medal was for Albert’s second league championship title with FTC. Fradi won the championship with forty-one points, ahead of Honvéd with thirty-eight (when a win resulted in two points being added). He ended the season with twenty goals, third in the leading goalscorers behind Ferenc Bene (Újpest Dózsa) and Lájos Tichy (Honvéd). The Inter-City Fairs Cup was the predecessor of the UEFA Cup and today’s Europa League. Victory in 1964-5 was the greatest success for Fradi to date. They defeated Juventus in the final, 1-0, with the winning goal scored by Máté Fenyvesi from a chipped cross. Just before the goal, Flórián had been pushed to the ground with both hands by one of the Italian defenders. The Fradi No. 9 could not see that the ball had fallen into the net from the head of Fenyesi. Albert would have questioned the referee, but his friends told him ‘no worries, we’re ahead!’ The joy of scoring could come later. As long as his bones were able to withstand the relentless kicking of opponents, he always stood in battle in many great matches, with an eccentric but easy-going style.

At the 1966 World Cup in England, the name of Flórian Albert was unmissable; he was on the field for all four Hungarian matches. After a 3-1 defeat by Portugal, the team bounced back to beat Brazil 3-1, making the whole world pay attention, once more, to the Mighty Magyars. However, after defeating the Bulgarians 3-1, the team lost to the USSR in the quarter-finals, 2-1. Despite not scoring in this tournament, Albert impressed the crowds and television viewers with his fantastic skills. Proof of this was his selection in the World Cup ‘dream team’ alongside Gordon Banks, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Charlton and Eusébio. After the World Cup, Flamengo of Brazil left no stone unturned to sign Albert on loan. Albert was given the opportunity to play as a guest for two weeks in January 1967, the customary break in the Hungarian league programme, but he was warned by the state authorities that if he stayed there with his wife (he had married a well-known actress, Irén Bársony, in 1963), his daughter would be taken into care. Albert scored two goals in four matches at the Brazilian club, where he was adored by the fans. The press paid him the ultimate compliment of likening him to Pelé.

During their league success of 1967, Fradi were eight points ahead of Újpest Dózsa, and Albert was the second top league scorer with twenty-eight goals, behind Antal Dunai II, who had scored thirty-six. At the end of the year, he was chosen as footballer of the year in Hungary and Europe. Managed by Károly Lakát, FTC went on to win their twentieth title at the end of the season. Újpest, with Fazekas, Göröcs and Bene in the team, and coached by the legendary Lajos Baróti, finished as runners-up. The fans had been attracted to the terraces by Albert and these other star players, with the Budapest Derby matches between Vasas and Újpest, and MTK and FTC, with over eighty thousand fans attending. Fradi also won the championship in 1968, their last championship before Újpest overtook them the following season. Flórian Albert, with nineteen goals, finished third in the leading scorers’ list, behind Dunai II and Bene of Újpest (32, 22). They had to wait until 1976 to win the First Division Championship again, by which time Albert had retired.

Albert in his FIFA tracksuit for the 1968 Brazil-World XI match.

According to contemporary reports, the Brazil-World XI match began on 6th November 1968, at 10:30 p.m.; alongside Flórián Albert, his compatriots, Lajos Szűcs and Dezső Novák also took part in the starting line-up. The two defenders played throughout the match and although Albert was replaced at half-time, János Farkas from Vasas came on for the second half. In the twentieth minute, Rivellino (of 1970 World Cup-winning fame) put Brazil ahead, but Albert levelled in the 33rd minute. The South Americans finally won the match in the 89th minute with Tostao’s goal. Four days after the World XI team match Flórián Albert was back to earth in Hungary, playing against Dunaújváros and scoring a brace of goals in Fradi’s 3-0 win.

The 1972 European Championship bronze match against Belgium was the last national team match to feature the legendary striker for a full ninety minutes. He was already struggling to overcome a knee ligament injury sustained three years earlier. In a 1969 World Cup Qualifier against Denmark, the Danish keeper had slid onto his foot, which twisted, rupturing a knee ligament. He was no longer able to perform at his former level. But he battled on for five more years, helping his club to win more trophies and reach the two-leg UEFA Cup semi-final against Wolverhampton Wanderers in April 1972 and scoring the opener in the first leg at the Népstadion in Budapest (as described in the reports above).

This pendant was awarded for Albert’s 75th and last international appearance.

Sadly, in 1974, Albert was forced to retire from the national team he had represented for fifteen years, making seventy-five appearances. He retired, aged thirty-three after it became clear that his knee could no longer bear the strain of top-level competition. His last match, appropriately, was against Yugoslavia, the team he had scored his first three goals for the national team against. In the friendly match played at Székesfehérvár, he was in the starting eleven and led the team onto the pitch as team captain. However, he had to leave the field after fifteen minutes to a standing ovation. The Yugoslavs, who had already been attacking strongly before that, seemed to have been waiting for the moment. As soon as Albert left the pitch they scored two quick goals, but the Magyars fought back with two goals from János Máté and a third from László Fazekas, winning 3-2. Albert played his last match for Ferencváros on 17th March 1974, at the Népstadion. During the farewell match, Albert replaced Lajos Kű in the 54th minute, scoring in the 78th to set the seal on the 3-0 victory. At the end of the match, it was reported that the whole of the People’s Stadium was sobbing, not only Albert himself, his teammates and the adoring Fradi fans.

The Népstadion (National Stadium) where Flórian Albert played many times both in the colours of the national team and Ferencváros (against Wolves in 1972, for example). It was finally renovated and completed in 2006 and renamed the Ferenc Puskás National Stadium.

Although his professional playing career ended in 1974, ‘the Emperor’ continued to play football and was issued a new playing license in 1978. He played several times for Fradi’s ‘Old Boys’, continuing to display his never-ending genius. Foreign readers eagerly read the results of the Hungarian championship, of the fight between the five Budapest ‘giants’: Ferencváros, Vasas, Honvéd, MTK and Újpest. It was as if football, although invented in England, had been made for this ‘loner’ nation, hiding behind ‘the iron curtain’, hardened by centuries of oppression and speaking an exotic language. It seemed enough for the people of Pest to go out at the weekend to any of the capital’s stadiums and watch their ‘little Messiahs’ of which there were two or three in each of the top teams. They were the ones who wrote the history of Hungarian football, and as important as the hot gúlyás (‘goulash) soup or pörkölt (paprika) pork stew they enjoyed once a week, particularly in winter after the savage pig-slaughtering. The rivals of these teams in the freedom of the West knew little of what it took to be a football player with Ferencváros and the other Budapest teams, waiting for the doorbell to ring, nor did they see much of the ‘sports washing’ of the Communist régime by its leaders’ cynical political manipulation and financial exploitation of the players of the Hungarian national team.

By staying at Ferencváros, Albert became a subtle symbol of resistance, a specialist sniper with a silencer on his rifle, featured in the pages of nearly all the football history books with his knowledge of the game. Born and nurtured in the age of the Cold War and the Space Race, Albert’s genius and goals became even more valuable, longed for, and adored over time, like a classic, future-proof poem or painting. After his retirement, he worked as a coach in Africa, with Al-Ahly Benghazi of Libya between 1978 and 1982 and again, briefly, in 1985. He then returned to Ferencváros in the mid-eighties to work alongside his good friend Gyula Rákosi as his assistant, mainly coaching Fradi’s youth team, but also helping Rákosi with the first team.

Coaching the Fradi youth players, and first team as assistant coach to Gyula Rákosi, FTC Head Coach.

It was a journalist from the MTI (Hungarian Telegraphic Office) who told the Albert family the great news of the award of the Ballon d’Or over the phone. That was when his wife, Irén Bársony, first heard of it. The Hungarian national newspaper, Népszabadsag (‘People’s Freedom’) did not even put this sensational news on its front page, as would have happened on other national newspapers. Even the sports paper, Népsport, only included it in a small space at the bottom of the front page. It could already be felt that the authorities would not handle Albert’s recognition as it deserved and would do their best to ensure that no real people’s celebration would take place in Hungary to mark his success on the international football stage. In fact, he received the award almost in secret. Initially, it was intended that the presentation would be made before the national team’s match against the Soviets but, just eleven years after their brutal putting-down of the 1956 Uprising, the communist politicians in power feared that such a celebration might lead to a spontaneous demonstration for freedom. So Flórián received the accolade at the post-match banquet at the Gundel restaurant in the city centre, in near complete secrecy. This was the first time in the history of the Ballon d’Or that the prestigious award had not been presented prior to a big match. Albert never spoke publicly about this treatment, but he admitted privately to being hurt by the leaders’ lack of respect.

In 1966, Flórián Albert played at the level of the world-class players on show in the World Cup finals. It became clear at the tournament that he had matured into one of the best footballers in the world. A year earlier he had won the Inter-City Fairs Cup with Ferencváros, beating Juventus in the final. In 1967, he scored twenty-eight goals in twenty-seven games in FTC colours in the Hungarian Championship, so his position was beyond dispute: Albert’s sixty-eight points were followed by Charlton with forty points and Johnstone with thirty-nine points. In 1997, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Ballon d’Or presentation, Albert received a beautiful ‘golden boot’ from Adidas.

Wolves’ Final European Matches of the Century, 1973-93:

Wolves made their next European appearance in the second round of the UEFA Cup against the East Germans, Lokomotiv Leipzig, in October 1973. In the first leg, in Leipzig, the Wolves were without their midfield king-pin Mike Bailey and strikers John Richards and Dave Wagstaffe. But no one in the Wolves camp could quite believe the result, a 3-0 defeat, and their first away defeat on their UEFA Cup travels. Not since meeting Barcelona in the Quarter-final of the European Champions Cup in 1960 had a side put three past Wolves in a competitive European game. The Old Gold tried to rally and rescue the tie in the second leg at Molineux, in a match that the fans who went to see it felt privileged to witness. They had scored the four goals they needed by the 83rd minute, but Locomotiv had scored the all-important away goal in the 72nd minute. So the tie finished 4-4 on aggregate, but the Wolves went out on the away goals rule. The half-coloured picture below features two of the Wolves’ frustrated goalscorers, Steve Kindon and Derek Dougan, kneeling and sitting on the ground after another Wolves attack came to nothing.

It was some compensation that in March 1974 Wolves won the League Cup, beating Manchester City 2-1 in the final at Wembley and so qualifying for one more season in the UEFA Cup. Man City had one of the best forward lines in the business from Mike Summerbee on the right, through Colin Bell, Francis Lee, Denis Law and Rodney Marsh. But the Wolves also had an impressive striking pair in Derek Dougan and John Richards. Richards scored the winning goal at Wembley but didn’t play again that season, while the ageing ‘Doog’ was now restricted to the substitutes’ bench.

In their first season together, 1971-72, they scored forty goals in the League and the UEFA Cup. I remember watching them in action at the Hawthorns, against West Bromwich Albion, and at Molineux. The duo scored a total of 125 goals in 127 games in their partnership in two-and-a-half seasons. Dougan played his last six full games in 1974-75, two of them in the UEFA Cup when Wolves went ‘one worse’ than their performances in previous seasons by losing in the first round to FC Porto, albeit to a team packed with world stars, including the Brazilian World Cup star, Flavio. Wolves went down 4-1 in the away leg but again came back at Molineux on 2nd October, winning 3-1, with Dougan scoring one of the goals. But his team lost 5-4 on aggregate.

Picture: Steve Daley after scoring the second against Porto

Wolves were relegated to Division Two at the end of the 1975-76 season, and after a brief return and another ‘Indian summer’, again at the end of the 1981-82 season. During the period between relegations, they qualified for the UEFA Cup for a fourth time in 1980-81. But Dutch masters PSV Eindhoven pretty much put an end to the Wolves’ hopes in mid-September by beating them 3-1 in Holland. Although Wolves won the second leg with a goal from Mel Eves (above), they lost the overall tie 3-2 on aggregate. This was their last appearance in a major European competition for thirty-nine years, as they slumped to the Fourth Division and almost went bankrupt.

Mel Eves attacking on the Wolves’ left. From the cover of the Match Magazine for Wolves v PSV Eindhoven, Wolves’ last European match of the century.

Lifelong fan Jack Hayward stepped in to purchase the club in 1990 and immediately funded the extensive redevelopment of a, by then, dilapidated Molineux into a modern all-seater stadium. With work completed in 1993, Hayward redirected his investment onto the playing side in an attempt to win promotion to the newly formed Premier League, which took another ten years, into the twenty-first century.

To mark the official opening of the new stand and the renovation of the Molineux stadium, the Hungarian side Kispest Honvéd was invited to play Wolves. On Tuesday 7 December 1993, a capacity all-seater crowd of 28, 245 watched the visitors hold the home team to a 2-2 draw. For the first time in nine years, Molineux was once again a proper four-sided stadium, all four having black and gold seats.

Interestingly, in this third match against Honvéd at Molineux, thirty-nine years after the first, there was a short delay because of problems with the floodlighting. But compared with some of the darker days of the previous fifteen years, this was not a major issue since, as Wolves fans knew, Out of Darkness Cometh Light.

A Gallery of Artefacts & Additional Photographs from the FTC Exhibition in Honour of Flórián Albert, 2021:


Pál Czigányi, et. al. (2021), Albert 80: The Legacy of the One and Only Hungarian Ballon d’Or Winner. Budapest: Ferencvárosi Torna Club.

György Szöllősi (2015), Ferenc Puskás: The Most Famous Hungarian. Budapest: Rézbong Kiadó.

György Szöllősi, Zalán Bodnár (2015), Az Aránycsapat Kinceskönyve (‘The Golden Team Treasure Book’). Budapest: Twister Media.

Bán Tibor, Harmos Zotán (2011), Puskás Ferenc. Budapest: Arena2000.

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against the World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud (Glos.): Tempus Publishing.

Previous articles on these topics: