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Vol. 5 No. 3 · 17 February 1983
Diary

Hungarians and Falklanders

A.J.P. Taylor

1835 words

I am just returning to normal life after some weeks in Hungary. Not that life in Hungary is abnormal. Indeed, when asked what conditions in Hungary are like I always reply: ‘Much as in England.’ I was told that there was less unemployment. On the other hand, prices have recently gone up more. But, in general, life in Hungary is much as in any West European country. One English visitor gave me a fearsome account of the Russian occupation, which he assured me was still at full strength. I can only report that during my visit I did not see a single Russian soldier and never met anyone who knew whether there were still any in Hungary. Certainly the American presence is more flagrant in England than the Russian presence is in Hungary. As to the Hungarians, they are more frightened of American nuclear missiles than of the Russian Army.

In the years after the war Hungary had a Communist revolution. Now Hungary is returning to her ancient ways. Heavy industry and the like are, of course, still nationalised. But what is called ‘the private sector’ is booming too. It reminded me of NEP in the early days of Soviet Russia. For that matter, conditions are much like those in England. There are plenty of well-to-do people, though maybe living a little more modestly. The main streets are as congested during the rush hours as they are in London. The suburban roads are lined with parked cars at night. The only difference from England is that nearly all the cars are on the small side – say, Escort-type. As I drive a Fiesta, I applaud the common sense of the Hungarians.

Hungary still has all the marks of a proud traditional state. It has an uninterrupted history for almost a thousand years. The actual date of foundation is 896, and since then the Hungarian state has always maintained some sort of existence. The Hungarian Parliament claims to be older than the English Parliament, a topic on which I do not judge. However, there can be no doubt that the Crown of St Stephen, now happily restored to Hungary, is the oldest regalia in Europe. It has a steady stream of Hungarian visitors. No state in Eastern Europe and few in Western Europe has a continuous history to compare with the Hungarian. The treatment of historians and other scholars fills me with envy. The Institute of Historical Research in Budapest has extensive quarters on Castle Hill and over sixty paid researchers on its staff. The comparable English Institute in London has modest quarters in the Senate House and no paid researchers. The Hungarian Academy has a palace all to itself just across from the Parliament House: colonnaded entrance and marble staircase. The Academy also owns country cottages on Lake Balaton and in the mountains, which members of the Academy can use for free during the summer. The British Academy occupies a few rooms in Burlington House and possesses no country cottages. Despite this, the Hungarian academics do not know how well off they are. At any rate, most of them seemed to be away on sabbatical visits to England, the United States or Finland, the latter Hungary’s only linguistic relative.

We had a lavish dinner on Christmas Eve with my stepsons and a lavish lunch on Christmas Day with my step-in-laws. We had more feasting on New Year’s Eve. There was a Christmas tree in every house or flat we visited, duly illuminated with coloured lights. The luxury hotels by the Danube are alleged to be for foreigners. I never heard anything except Hungarian spoken in them – perhaps Hungarian émigrés returned from the United States for Christmas, but I doubt it. I put on half a stone while I was in Hungary, all from eating too much. Now I am having difficulty taking the half-stone off again.

The Hungarians have one outstanding grievance: the Hungarian minority in Rumania is treated abominably. No love here between one Communist state and another. I estimate that the Rumanian attitude towards its Hungarians is now the worst national scandal in Europe: far worse than, for instance, the Spanish treatment of the Basques. On a lesser scale, one Hungarian acquaintance complained of rough behaviour in the streets. He said people in London behaved more elegantly. I answered that he could not have been in London for a long time. All I know is that in Budapest I was always offered a seat if the bus or tram were crowded. In London I can never get to a seat in time – a young boy or girl always gets in ahead of me.

Now I am back in England and what do I find? The affair of the Falkland Islands is again running in full spate. The Franks Committee had completed its investigations before I returned. It seemed to be high farce. These elderly gentlemen discovered what anyone could have told them: that the intelligence services did not give any precise warning until it was too late. What else could they have done? It had been clear to any intelligent observer (which means something quite different from being in the intelligence services) that Argentina would break out sooner or later. The rulers of the Argentine are in a rickety state. As so often happens, they think that they can capture a bagful of prestige by turning the Falklands into the Malvinas, and they have nothing better to do than play around with the subject. What happened last year now lies in the past. It is a waste of time debating what the British Government did then. The more troublesome question is what it should do now. The Argentines are once again making threatening noises, as they could be expected to do. This costs them little; they have nothing better to do; and they can keep it up until British resources are committed elsewhere.

Apparently it has only just occurred to the British Government that the Argentines would have a second go and repeat this indefinitely. Is the answer for the British Government to enter an arms race which can go on for years? It seems so. This should be an opportunity for the Opposition to offer a sensible alternative – which involves a readiness to negotiate and, in the end, to give way. I must confess that last year I was at first totally wrong like almost everyone else. I went on record that we must defend the rights and freedom of the Falklanders, with the implication that this must go on for ever. Now we are committed to Fortress Falkland to the end of time. Sooner or later this folly must be ended, but who is there left to say so? Michael Foot was as bellicose as Mrs Thatcher, and most of the Labour MPs followed his line.

With deep grief I now set down my conviction that Michael Foot was wrong last year when I applauded him and is still wrong now that I don’t. Michael is my dear friend, as he has been for many years past. This will not be the first occasion for him to complain that I have stabbed him in the back. Now I do it with good reason. The Anglo-Argentinian dispute over the Falkland Islands must never again be allowed to turn into war. This can be secured only by concessions, indeed ultimately by surrender, on the British side. Those who advocate this will no doubt become unpopular, but they will be right all the same. Michael cannot take this line: he is too committed to reliance on force already. The only man who has shown common sense from the beginning is Tony Benn. He still shows it every time he speaks, and in my opinion is now the only man fit to lead the Labour Party if that party wants to free itself from the taint of imperialism and sabre-rattling.

One small disadvantage of living in Hungary was that I was often too lazy to climb Castle Hill, and so missed buying the Times at the Hilton Hotel. Occasionally when I did climb up I was told, whether correctly I do not know, that the Times was on strike. At any rate, I missed the obits for some weeks. Since returning home, I have done laborious research on the Times in the London Library. The name that stirred my memories and regrets most was Canon John Collins, who died on New Year’s Eve. John Collins was that very rare thing: a good man. He was not particularly a rebel or a radical. He was very conventional in many of his ways, as in being a Canon of St Paul’s. But once he saw the right thing to do, nothing could deter him from doing it. For many years he was the outstanding champion in Great Britain of coloured people all over the world. His activity was always practical: fund-raising, legal advocacy and so on. More than anyone else, he was the founder of CND, first phase, and he kept CND on the right lines for years. In the early days of CND he and I toured as a duo: John took the chair and pleaded – most effectively – for money; I started with hard reasoning which usually turned into rabble-rousing. I have never enjoyed myself more than when John and I took Glasgow or some other great city by storm. I agreed with almost everything that John said and did, particularly when the extremists of CND got out of hand. John never quarrelled with CND, but I think he was happy to get back to the coloured peoples.

I have never before commented on an article in a previous number of the London Review of Books. I cannot hold back from doing so now. In my opinion, Norman Stone’s article on E.H. Carr was wrong at almost every point. I am not well enough versed in Russian and Soviet history to judge how much justice there is in Stone’s criticism of Carr’s major work – I should guess a good deal. But Carr can also show a shelfful of masterpieces – from Michael Bakunin and the Twenty Years’ Crisis to What is history? or his last volume of essays. Stone is totally wrong on Carr as a personality. Carr could be an enchanting companion and at the same time a ruthless critic. He went very much his own way. Very often he had to because of the persecution he endured from more respectable circles. I will not now reveal the name of the Oxford college where he was refused a fellowship solely because his marriage had been dissolved. Instead I will repeat what I have said here before: that Ted Carr was one of the very few Fellows of the British Academy who stood by me in the Blunt affair. He said to me: ‘Why do you do it – always making trouble?’ But he stood by me all the same.

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Vol. 5 No. 5 · 17 March 1983

SIR: The spectacle of left-wing academics visiting parts of the Soviet empire and returning to tell us that all is well is a familiar one, but not less disreputable for that. So A.J.P. Taylor (LRB, 17 February) assures us that Hungary is really just like England. Doubtless it is today one of the pleasantest parts of Eastern Europe in which to live, particularly for those of Mr Taylor’s class, partly as a result of its abandonment of Marxist economic practices. We may choose to forget that Mr Kadar was put where he is by Soviet arms, and that in the last resort these provide the only legitimacy his power possesses. Cum domino pax ista venit. We may choose to forget the thousands of Hungarians (many of them workers) who were eliminated after the Uprising – with some help from Mr Andropov. Mr Taylor of course never saw any Soviet soldiers (there are four divisions stationed in Hungary), and he claims that American troops are far more evident in this country. (He does not point out that Hungary strictly supports Soviet foreign policy, whereas the Falklands war, whatever he may think of it, does at least illustrate the point that Britain can act contrary to the wishes and interests of the US Administration.) Above all, Mr Taylor makes play with the happy and privileged position enjoyed by Hungarian academics; indeed this section of society has on the whole fared quite well, and the unfriendly might even say that they have to some extent been bought off: those workers who sought real freedom and equality were among those who chiefly suffered.

It so happens that I visited Greece under the Colonels, where I saw little army presence and no acts of repression, and even heard the virtues of the regime extolled by a friendly and well-fed peasant. None of this of course had the remotest relevance to the true situation of the country, and if I had reported back that all was well because I had seen nothing amiss, I would have been rightly excoriated. In an earlier Diary Mr Taylor praised Dr Johnson for his freedom from cant. I doubt whether the great Tory would have repaid the compliment, and can imagine his comment: ‘The fellow’s a vile Whig, sir, and there’s an end on’t.’

It so happens that in a letter in the same issue two academics remind us of the ‘positive’ qualities of Stalin’s rule. Certainly Russia did not disintegrate under Stalin, and Hitler was repelled (as Napoleon had been by the Tsar). But it remains odd to concede credit to a man responsible for the death of some fifteen million of his subjects, the peasant-slayer who instituted a bureaucracy that continues to repress the majority with matchless efficiency in a notable continuation of the class struggle. The point may be wearyingly familiar, but that does not make the facts go away. One can imagine how, had Hitler succeeded in establishing a lasting Reich, historians, often great worshippers of success, would compete in finding the ‘positive’ side of his achievements. When the Left finally and unequivocally condemns evil, its prescription for good will acquire more validity.

Charles Martindale
University of Sussex

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