Tag Archives: Hungary

Such terribly British problems: The Suez Crisis

Such terribly British problems: The ‘Suez Crisis’

‘We are not at war with Egypt. We are in an armed conflict’. Sir Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister in 1956

The years after 1945 were a time of great discomfort and challenge for Britain as it faced up to an era of inevitable decline in the wake of World War II. While the establishment might try to carry on with an attitude of ‘business as usual’, the shift in the balance of power, which saw the rise of the USA and the USSR as the dominant ‘Super-powers’ in the Cold War, was such that London could no longer dictate terms or set the global agenda as it had done for more than a century. However, managing decline is one of the most difficult and horrifying tasks in many areas, be it sport, business or politics, and despite the obvious difficulties of near bankruptcy and the break-up of the Empire, there was much in the language and culture of the Establishment that still smacked of being a ‘great power’.

There was some evidence to support this position, of course, for even though the USA and the USSR were clearly the ones dictating the pace and direction of international affairs, Britain still sat at the top table and was one of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations. There was still a aura of splendour amidst the relative decay, a glorious history for which the ‘free-world’ could offer thanks with regard to the two world wars if not for every aspect of empire, but the world had changed and Britain was no longer ‘top-dog’. It had become more of a lap-dog for the USA, the ‘special relationship’ proclaiming its role in the new gang which had gathered around, or behind, Washington.  The country had changed so that an uncertain future loomed, economically, politically and militarily, putting new threats and demands on politicians and other leaders who had grown up in a different age.

No group or class could exclude itself from the enormous social and political changes that swept through Britain in the wake of the World Wars. The structure of life and its accepted core values were shaken by the turmoil of the previous decades, so that new ideas and expectations came to the fore. Industrialisation, education, political ideology, the media, the arts and other factors, combined to create a society which was radically different from that which had shaped Britain, for better and for worse, in the years up to 1945. Peace did not bring a simple desire to return to the past, to 1939, as though that were some glorious, halcyon year in which everyone wished to live. The dawn of a new era was announced with Labour’s election victory over Churchill’s tired Conservative Party, a shocking landslide that led to the creation of the ‘Welfare State’. So many ideas and actual changes  that marked the ‘post-war consensus’ were introduced under Attlee’s Government, such as the creation of the NHS and changes in the benefit system, higher rates of income tax for the rich, fundamental changes to the education system. For the next three decades and more, there was to be a greater role for the state in most areas of life, a change so clearly expressed in the huge programme of nationalisation that brought coal production, the railways, the Bank of England and, of course, the health service under State control.

In 1945, Labour took control of a country which had its most powerful days behind it. The devastating effects of the two world wars and the economic depression, it was clear that, despite any rhetoric to the contrary, there could be no going back to the days of Empire and influence. The world had changed and there were now two new superpowers, the USA and the USSR, on the  world stage. Britain had to find a new role as it tried to ensure that a ‘managed decline’ could be achieved without dramas, pain or, indeed, revolution. Much of this was achieved with surprising dignity and control, with events like the break-up of the Empire after India was granted independence in 1947, the hosting of the Olympic Games in London in 1948, the ‘Festival of Britain’ in 1951 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, showing the country in a positive light despite the many troubles. However, as the years went on, other events shone a light on a country which was struggling to adapt to the post-war changes. One which may sum up the confusion and fragility of the state was the ‘Suez Crisis’ of late October, 1956. It centred on control of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which had been the key link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea for nearly a century and was especially important to Britain and France, primarily as the shipping route to India, South and East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Map showing the location of the Suez Canal as it links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Image: here; Source: here

The Suez Canal was hailed as a major feat of engineering when it opened on 17th November, 1869. Under the guidance of Ferdinand de Lesseps,  in collaboration with the Egyptian authorities and the Emperor Napoleon III, the canal was built over a period of about ten years. Its impact was significant and, although France maintained a majority interest, Britain came to exercise some influence when it bought up Egypt’s share in the project as a result of its external debts. Although it was open to all shipping, the British saw the canal as being especially significant to its position, and through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, it was allowed to maintain a military presence along the ‘Suez Canal Zone’. The changed nature of world affairs and international relations in the post-World War II era saw the decline of the old Imperial powers, in Britain and France, and the rise of national and independence movements in the former colonies. In Egypt, the nationalist movement was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), and an aspect of this development was a 1954 agreement with Britain which provided for the removal of the military presence over a seven year period. This was the back-drop to what happened in the ‘Suez Crisis’ but there were other factors at work in the 1950s.

Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) in 1968. Image: here; Source: here

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw some astonishing changes in the geo-political landscape of the world; indeed few periods in world history can match the post-war decade for the scale of its shift in the balance of power. The USA had established itself as the leader of the western world with incredible speed, just as a family of Communism had been built around the USSR, and reached from the heart of Europe away to the Pacific. The old Empires of Britain and France were in decline, with major developments seen in India receiving independence from Britain in 1947 and France withdrawing from Vietnam in 1954. Across Africa, Asia and South America, nationalist and independence movements were on the rise, making demands on the former colonial powers at a time when they faced significant political change alongside economic and social challenges at home. The world of the early 1950s was far from having the clarity, stability and security that had existed for the ‘Great Powers’ at the opening of the Suez Canal eight decades earlier.

The early years of the Cold War saw the establishment of the battle-lines for supremacy between the USA and the USSR. Under the leadership of Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin, the likelihood seemed that a conflict of some kind, triggered by an event such as the Korean War or the Chinese Revolution, might lead to the end of humanity. The Superpowers seemed set on a course of probable destruction due to the logic rooted in meeting force with force; no compromise nor tolerance of the other power seemed possible. The initial period of tension and hostility then received a major jolt in 1953 when Truman came to the end of his term in office and was replaced by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, for the Republicans, and in Moscow, Joseph Stalin died, with Nikita Khrushchev coming to replace him. It is a sign of the relative decline of Britain and France that it was changes in Washington and Moscow that should shape their actions; they had become rather marginal, second-class powers.

Fundamental to what happened at Suez was the fall-out from the change in the leadership of the USSR. By 1956, the USA in particular had become rather concerned about the increasingly close relationship which seemed to be developing between Egypt and the USSR. This change was a direct consequence of Khrushchev’s ideas known as ‘Peaceful coexistence’, whereby he wanted to challenge the USA and the West by competing with them directly so as to show the supremacy of the Communist system. In the arts, sport, science and industry, the USSR and its allies would show how its ways and values were stronger than those produced by capitalism and democracy. This ideology would see visits to the West by circuses, orchestras and ballet dancers, intensive competition in the Olympic Games and, of course, the dramas of the Space Race, but it would also see a struggle for influence in what was known as ‘The Third World’, the developing and, largely, non-aligned countries and the colonies that were emerging from Imperial control.

President Gamal Nasser and Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the ceremony to divert the course of the River Nile for the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1964, eight years after the ‘Suez Crisis’.  Image: here; Source: here

In the early years of the Cold War, the USA has established its hegemony, expanding its influence through its economic influence and military deals. Khrushchev believed that American influence was actually very shallow and short-term, rooted in the dollar and the gun, so that if he offered the benefits of Communism to these countries, they would actually choose to ally themselves with Moscow. ‘The Third World’ became a major ideological battlefield where the struggle was fought by engineers, doctors and educators, and it was one in which the USSR had some significant successes as it gained influence in numerous countries, not the least of them being Egypt.

Egypt is, of course, an ancient country in a strategically powerful position. At the mouth of the Nile as it enters the Mediterranean, it is forever associated with the Pharaohs and pyramids, but that was long ago. However, as with the influence of the Romans on Italy, there is something of that ancient story which has continued to shape the aspirations of many people in the modern Egypt; past glories are powerful memories, and their influence could be seen just as clearly in the way Britain and France reacted in the post-war period.  Egypt had long been a part of the Ottoman Empire but had then come under British control before attaining a level of independence in 1921-22 although, as has been mentioned, British troops remained to oversee communications and to protect European ‘interests’, namely the Suez Canal. There was a growing sense of unrest and a rejection of a certain ‘colonial’ status amongst some sectors of Egyptian society and in 1952, a military coup saw King Farouk removed with, first General Neguib, and later Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, in power.

Nasser had various goals as leader of Egypt. He wanted to forge a new identity for an ancient country and ensure its security, prosperity and independence from the old European powers. To enable this to happen, he needed more money, the full control of the River Nile and more electricity which could drive economic development. To make this happen, he planned to build the Aswan Dam, a project which would require massive investment from overseas. Initially, the funding and technology for the dam was to have come from the USA but this was withdrawn when it was realised that Egypt was developing closer links with the USSR, an example of ‘Peaceful coexistence’ in action. There was a great concern in Washington that Communism was going to leap into North Africa, a sign of the feared ‘domino effect’ which could see region of vital interests fall under Moscow’s control, and a direct threat to oil production in the Middle East. In retaliation against this withdrawal of promised aid, and as an act of strength and independence, Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal, knowing it would inconvenience and threaten the Western powers, giving him some leverage in future negotiations.

When the Egyptian Government announced its intention to nationalise the Suez Canal and take control away from Britain and France, there was great alarm in London and Paris, as well the recently formed Israel, which was in a tense relationship with Egypt and other countries of the region. For western countries, the added cost and uncertainty from having to travel around South Africa to reach India, Australia and the Far East, would have had a huge impact on costs, safety and time. It was also a humiliation that they no longer seemed able to pull the strings in Egypt, a sign which they thought might encourage similar acts of independence and confrontation in other countries and colonies. In what always seemed to be a desperate action, Britain and France, together with Israel, decided to invade Egypt and to take back control of the canal-zone. It was always a risky project but what made it more foolhardy was that they never consulted the USA. In the context of the Cold War, and with NATO being such a key organisation, to act in such a way was simply dangerous, especially if it went wrong – which it did.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ happened in late October-early November, 1956. The plan for the attack, codenamed ‘Operation Musketeer’, had been drawn up between the three Prime Ministers in a meeting at Sèvres near Paris: Guy Mollet of France, Anthony Eden of Britain and David Ben-Gurion of Israel. It is interesting to note that Eden had been Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary during appeasement in the 1930s and he was determined that such an approach should not be followed again. The plan set out was that Israel should attack Egypt on grounds that it was concerned about Egyptian forces being armed with Soviet weapons. In response to this, Britain and France would issue an ultimatum that both sides should stop fighting, believing that Egypt would then launch a counter-attack against Israel. This would give them the excuse of sending in troops to aid Israel as Egypt had ignored the warning. As it happened, Nasser started to withdraw Egypt’s forces in response to the ultimatum but Britain and France invaded anyway. The Egyptian air force was destroyed and Anglo-French forces made quick progress but could not reach the Suez Canal before the UN called for a ceasefire and an end to all actions.

Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

File:Guy Mollet Archief.PNG

Guy Mollet, the French Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli Prime Minister in 1956. Image: here; Source: here

In a military sense, victory and control of the canal would have been easily achieved. But politically, the ‘Suez Crisis’ was a disaster for both Britain and France: Eisenhower in the USA was furious, their standing with the UN and in the Middle East was seriously weakened and, in the British Empire in particular, the colonies were concerned and disturbed by what they had seen. A UN Peacekeeping mission was sent into control the canal-zone and neither Britain nor France ever regained its influence. In Parliament, Eden basically lied and said that there was absolutely no planning or pre-meditation in what had happened, a direct denial of the meeting at Sèvres. That statement in the House of Commons was made in December, 1956, and was to be his last as Prime Minister. Eden resigned in January, 1957, largely as a result of stress and ill-health linked with those events.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ was especially significant because it happened at exactly the same time as the ‘Hungarian Revolution’ of October-November, 1956, took place, an event which painted the USSR as a power-hungry state, imposing its will on other countries and using unacceptable violence to achieve its goals – exactly the same as the two western powers did. Suez made it impossible for the West to level criticism against the USSR for its intervention in Hungary. It was a disaster of both planning and public relations, indicating that neither Britain nor France was any longer able to act alone militarily and also raised great concerns in Washington about the relationship with its two main Cold War allies. It weakened the West’s ‘moral status’ in the world and caused many smaller countries to seek independence from the old Empires. Overall, the ‘Suez Crisis’ was a disaster and a real low-point in international affairs for both Britain and France. It also threw Israel into some chaos which would entrench positions against the Arab states which surrounded it. The USA would eventually step in to ensure Israeli security in the aftermath of the ‘Suez Crisis’, an action which has repercussions to this day.

The ‘Suez Crisis’ was an easy military success but a disaster for both the British and French Governments, an example of the danger inherent in being driven by a memory of greatness and ignoring reality, no matter how unpleasant that might be. Like a punch-drunk ex-champion in boxing, Eden (and Mollet, of course) went into the ring once too often and suffered a humiliating defeat. The Establishment was shaken to its core by these events as a once mighty group, which prized its ability to discern, to manage and to act, as well as to win, had failed to read the rather obvious ‘signs of the times’. Suez was a stab to the heart that caused even the stiffest of upper lips to quiver.

Find out more
Books: ‘Suez’ by Keith Kyle; ‘Suez 1956: The Inside Story of the First Oil War’ by Barry Turner

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water.

Imre_Nagy,_Budapest_statue

A statue of Imre Nagy, a key figure in the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ of 1956. (Author: Adam78; Source: here)

 

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water

There is something profound and satisfying about the victory of the underdog. It is a fundamental part of the human story reaching back into ancient tales, such as those great matches like David and Goliath from the First Book of Samuel and Aesop’s tale of that tortoise sneaking ahead of a rather cocky hare; they touch into something profound and powerful in the human psyche. Whether it be because of size, age, wealth or weapons, we seem to rejoice in the victory of the weaker or out-numbered force, unless we happen to be on the other side, of course. There is always a story behind such victories, bringing a need to find the cause behind the unexpected result.

The history of sport, of course, provides so many of the most satisfying examples of the mighty being humbled by the lesser power: Germany’s Max Schmeling knocking out the great Joe Louis in 1936; the USA soccer team stunning the world when they beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup and Sunderland winning the FA Cup in 1973 against the ‘unbeatable’ Leeds United; Arthur Ashe out thinking Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon in 1975; Ireland crushing the mighty West Indies at cricket in 1969 after bowling them out for just 25. But it happens in more important matters, too: the Viet Minh withstanding the might of the USA in the Vietnam War; Mahatma Gandhi overcoming the British Empire through peaceful resistance to bring Indian independence; the Montgomery Bus Boycott seeing patience and perseverance rewarded by an end to segregation on the buses.  The commitment, creativity and courage shown in these events from the last century can still serve as an inspiration today. And one of these stories is known as ‘Blood in the water’, an event which combines sport, violence and politics in a game of water-polo.

The story focuses on Hungary, so let’s check where it is by looking at a map of central Europe. today, it is a country of about 10 million people today, one which has a very long and proud tradition; it was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire fought with Germany in the Great War (1914-18) before being divided up by the ‘Treaty of Triannon’ (1920), which was part of those agreements which are usually grouped together as ‘The Treaty of Versailles’. Hungary as we know it today was, therefore, created in the wake of the Great War.

Hungary-CIA_WFB_Map

Hungary (Author: CIA; Source: here)

Anyway, now for a little background about the country. Hungary’s country’s capital city is Budapest, a fine place split by the River Danube, the second longest river in Europe which starts in Germany and flows nearly 1800 miles down to the Black Sea. The city is in two halves, the older part being ‘Buda’ on the western side of the river and the newer being ‘Pest’ on the east. The Hungarian language is very unusual, having links with Finnish and Estonian but not much else, so don’t expect to understand much should you visit; there are some very strange letter combinations, like ‘Magyarország’, the name for Hungary itself. By the way, the name ‘Hun’ for a German or Austro-Hungarian soldier in the Great War comes from the fact that the whole of the Central European region was settled by that tribe in the 5th century when they were led by ‘The Scourge of God’, Attila the Hun. That was probably a fairly obvious point but hopefully someone will appreciate it.

Although it has a rich history, Hungary tends to be a bit of a forgotten place for most people today but there are actually quite a few famous Hungarians that you should have heard of: Robert Capa, the photographer; Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actress; Erno Rubik, inventor of the Cube and other time-occupying devices; Lazslo Biro, inventor of the ball-point pen and the automatic gear box for cars; Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest footballers of all time; Calvin Klein, fashion, and Estee Lauder, make-up; Drew Barrymore, Paul Newman and Tony Curtis are famous actors from a Hungarian background; Bartok and Liszt, are well-known composers; and tennis champion Monica Seles was also from Hungary.

Hungary was profoundly affected by defeat in the Great War. As mentioned above, the ‘Treaty of Trianon’ in 1920 saw similar punishments placed on the country as had been put on Germany by the more famous ‘Treaty of Versailles’. And just as in Germany, deep resentment was felt by the leaders and the people as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a long and hugely important history as part of the Habsburg (or Hapsburg) domain. This resentment proved to be a potent force, so that when the new Hungary was created, it took little time before it came under the control of a right-wing dictator. This was a less than brilliant but impeccably dressed naval officer called Admiral Horthy Miklos (1868-1957). Despite his limitations, Horthy was actually the longest surviving Fascist dictator of the inter-war period, ruling from 1920 to 1944 and just out-lasting Benito Musssolini in Italy. His position at the head of a fascist government was a sign of the frustration and anger at the defeat in the Great War, and its retreat into narrow and aggressive nationalist thinking echoed that seen elsewhere in the defeated nations.

411px-Horthy_the_regent

Admiral Horthy Miklos (as the surname comes first in Hungarian). One can only admire the hand on the sword, the uniform and the fine array of medals. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

The strong sense of nationalism in Hungary, a country which knew its traditions well, was only natural in a place which saw itself as being at the heart of Central European culture and learning. In the early 20th century, Hungary was a rather important country, being relatively wealthy and well-educated, and occupying a crucial region geographically. The country was used to making alliances, having been tied in with Austria and ruling so many other regions, so it was quite normal to enjoy strong political relations with the likes of Germany and Italy in the inter-war period. The humiliation of 1914-18 drove the country into the hands of the right-wing and so it was only natural that when World War II started, the country would fight alongside the Nazis. Without going into an analysis of the experiences of Hungary during World War II, for they are a major story in their own right, it is vital to know that it was the Soviet forces, the Red Army, which took control in 1945. Obviously, this left the country under the influence of Joseph Stalin and Communism, a massive ideological change compared to what had gone before. Naturally, Budapest was one of those cities Churchill referred to in 1946 as being one of ‘the ancient capitals of Europe’ which were on the wrong side of the ‘Iron Curtain’. 1946 was actually the year in which Hungary entered the record books as the country which suffered the very worst hyper-inflation of all time, its price rises even dwarfing those of Germany in 1922-23. As with Germany, it was reparations which were at the heart of the problem, although this time the payments had to be made to the USSR. The inflation rate of 41 900 000 000 000 000% meant prices were doubling every 13 hours and the government issued the highest value note of all time, the 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 pengo; the numbers were written quite small so that they could fit on. These numbers are so big that they become meaningless but it’s still good to know such things.

By the end of the war, Admiral Horthy had, of course, been forced to pack up his rather extensive wardrobe and move off into exile, finally arriving in Portugal via an appearance at the Nuremberg trials and some time living in Germany. By 1948, Hungary’s transformation from Fascism to Communism was complete as it joined the other East European countries under Stalin’s rule. A brief period of apparent liberty for the Hungarians had ended with the arrival in power of the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Rákosi Mátyás. A revolutionary going back to the days which had seen Horthy come to power, Rákosi was a particularly nasty man who was a true disciple of Stalin. He was known to the Hungarian people as ‘Old Arse Head’, and only a photo will suffice to explain this rather unpleasant but accurate description; while one should not judge people on looks alone, you will probably find yourself in agreement with the people on this one.

47372278_rakosi_rakosi_matyas_s_2

Rákosi Mátyás (1892-1971) (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Even though he is sort of smiling in this picture, don’t be fooled; Rákosi was a deeply unpleasant man who oversaw the removal of many innocent people through the work of the AVO, the secret police. Several hundred thousand people disappeared in purges between 1948 and 1956 as he earned one of his other nicknames, ‘The Bald Murderer’. The Communist Party dominated life in Hungary as Rákosi proved his loyalty, and lack of imagination, by closely following Stalin’s policies of the Thirties. Opposition voices were crushed as he sought to impose totalitarian rule but then it all came to a sudden halt in 1956, three years after the death of his hero in Moscow.

Rákosi joined the various other leaders of the USSR’s satellite nations in Moscow for the XXth Party Congress. In the closed session for which the congress became famous, he was seen to go pale as he listened to Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. The implications of this astonishing attack on Stalin was a clear sign of changes to come, a message soon heard and understood by the people as well as the leaders. Rákosi quickly became a victim of the new era and he disappeared from power and, quite naturally, the people of Hungary believed a better life awaited them; change following such a tyrant had to be for the better. This belief was soon strengthened by events in Poland, where there was an uprising in October, 1956. A significant outcome of this was that, for the first time, the local Communist Party was allowed to choose its own leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka. Admittedly, they had to chose someone who was ‘acceptable’ to Moscow but even so, this was a sign of change and ‘relaxation’ under Khrushchev; he was not as controlling as Stalin. To the people and the politicians, it really looked as though Khrushchev was acting on his speech by allowing greater freedom in some areas of life. In Budapest, there was a sense of hope and determination in the population that wanted to make that change real but few could have expected where it would lead them. there would be blood on the streets and in the water as a consequence of what happened next.

The basic details of the events of October-November 1956, the so-called ‘Hungarian Uprising’ or ‘Hungarian Revolution’, are quite straight-forward. The uprising developed as a result of anger and frustration at life under Communist rule. Led by students in particular, there were protests and calls for greater freedom of speech, improved living conditions, and an end to the controls from Moscow and oppression by the state forces. In a crucial and symbolic act, the protesters took control of the radio station in Budapest. naturally, they met opposition from the AVO, the police and the army, both Hungarian and Soviet, with fighting and destruction on a significant scale. People cut the Communist symbols from the centre of the Hungarian flags and launched revenge attacks on the much-hated AVO; many were executed in public. There was violence on the streets as vigilantes used any weapons they could find against the official powers.

hungary-1956-revolution-uprising-soviet-invasion-history-illustrated-pictures-photos-images-004

The extraordinary anger of the common people flooded out in attacks against the AVO, the secret police, as this photo of a street execution shows. (Author: unknown, Source: here)

But then, to everyone’s relief, a peace descended as the Red Army and the Hungarian forces withdrew. Khrushchev was clearly going to act in a different way from that which Stalin would have. The people seem to have believed the reports that were coming from Radio Free Europe, an American backed station, which seemed to offer support to the rebels, suggesting that the people were not fighting alone but would have American and Western support. With their hopes raised so high, the people looked to establish even greater freedoms, choosing Imre Nagy (1897-1959), as the new Prime Minister. Nagy (pronounced ‘Narj’) was a far more moderate Communist than most politicians and was seen as a compromise candidate, a figure who might introduce change while still being acceptable to Moscow. He would later be called a hero but at the time Nagy lacked both awareness and courage, always seeming to be playing catch up with the people and misjudging the tone of the rebellion.

10-39NagyImre

Imre Nagy, the leading Communist who was chosen to be the figure-head of the Hungarian Uprising. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Inn the end, though, it did not really matter because, after a short respite, the Red Army returned in force, with support from the Warsaw Pact forces, and took a ruthless revenge. The casualties were high on both sides as the uprising was dramatically and decisively crushed. the huge statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest might have been destroyed, and Stalin himself might have been criticised in Moscow, but Khrushchev was not soft, especially when he had the threat of his own destruction hanging over him from hard-liners in the Party and the Red Army. Over 2500 Hungarians died in the fighting between 23rd October and 10th November. Another 13 000 were injured and over 200 000 would flee the country soon after. 700 Communist soldiers died, some being shot by their own officers for refusing to attack civilians. Imre Nagy, the rather weak and unwilling leader of a ‘free’ Hungary, would later be executed, just one of the many to die. The ‘promised’ help from the West never came to the Hungarian people as US President Eisenhower was simply not prepared to risk a world war over a small Eastern Bloc country like Hungary. In addition to that, any hopes of gathering a Western alliance together to help Hungary were thrown into turmoil by the Suez Crisis which saw Britain, France and Israel make an unsuccessful attempt to impose their will in Egypt. Hungary was crushed. Thousands were dead, wounded or in prison. Fear, anger and a sense of betrayal were in many people’s hearts.

 

AH16-1370_Hungarian-students+toppled-Stalin-statue_1956

Crowds gather around the giant statue of Stalin after it was pulled down in Budapest. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Considering the terrible state of affairs, it might seem strange but salvation of a kind was at hand for the Hungarian people. In the shadow of the greatest horror and suffering, a small sign of hope was to be found in a swimming pool 9 000 miles away  from Budapest. because, while there had been blood on the streets of Hungary, there was also to be blood in the water in Melbourne, Australia. Hungary has a great tradition of swimming. Outdoor pools are very common and many Hungarians are superb swimmers. They also have a great tradition of playing water polo, one of the toughest of all sports. Rather like handball but played in the water, teams of seven a side pass a ball to each other before attempting to score goals by throwing the ball into a net, like a small football goal. And like handball and basketball, it is supposed to be a game of no contact, a rule ignored by almost every team. Water polo is a tough game but it was never meant to be as violent as it got in 1956.

The Melbourne Olympics of 1956 were the first to be held in the northern winter months because Australia, of course, is in the southern hemisphere. This meant that it started just after the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ had ended in such a violent defeat for the ordinary people, the rebels of the country. The Hungarian water polo team travelled to Melbourne as one of the strongest contenders for the gold medal. But their journey to the games, and the competition itself, was over-shadowed by the events at home. The team made steady progress through the competition before reaching the semi-finals where they ended up facing the team from the Soviet Union. Traditionally, the two countries were great rivals but that took on a new level of enmity, thanks, of course, to the Moscow’s violent crushing of the revolution. The Hungarian team had been at a camp overlooking Budapest when the rebellion began. They had seen the smoke and heard the gun-fire before they were flown out to Australia. Reports of casualties and destruction had reached them so that they knew that in facing the Soviet Union they were doing more than playing a game; this was a rare opportunity for revenge, striking a blow for their friends and others who had fought and suffered at the hands of the AVO, the police and the tanks of the Red Army.

The match became the most famous in water polo’s history. It became known as the ‘Blood in the Water’ match, after violence erupted throughout the game. Players on both sides were kicked, bitten and punched but Hungary moved steadily ahead. They eventually won 4-0, refusing to show any respect to the team from the ‘senior’ country in Communism. Towards the end of the match, one of their star players, Ervin Zador (1935-2012), was punched so hard by his Soviet marker that he was cut above the eye. The crowd had been passionately involved in the match, as had both squads on the pool side, and this led to a riot. The referees, seeing that there was only a minute to play, abandoned the game, awarding the match to the Hungarians. Complaints were made by the Soviet team but to no avail; victory was given to the Hungarians who went on to take the gold medal by defeating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final. But the real victory and the true glory rested on that semi-final victory. It was a triumph summed up in this famous photo of Zador.

1956_Melbourne_c

‘Blood in the water’, Ervin Zador in 1956. (Author: Corbis; Source: here)

After the tournament, many of the Hungarian team refused to return home, with some staying in Australia while others went to the USA. Ervin Zador himself went to the USA where he would stay involved with water polo and swimming. As a coach he looked after a promising young swimmer called Mark Spitz, the man who would go on to set an Olympic record in 1972 by winning seven gold medals in the pool at Munich. But he will always be remembered in Hungary for spilling his blood for the glory of his country against their greatest enemy, one small cut to set against the blood of thousands.

‘All I could think about was, ‘Could I play the next match?’’ Ervin Zador, Water-Polo player

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Children of Glory’ (DVD – Lions Gate Entertainment, 2008)

Books: ‘Twelve Days: Revolution 1956’ by Victor Sebestyen (Phoenix, 2007); ‘Nine Suitcases’ by Bela Szolt (Pimlico, 2005); ‘More Than a Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch books Ltd, 2009)

 

 

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Robert Capa

Robert Capa was a Hungarian photographer. He was born in 1913 and his real name was Endre (or Andrei) Friedmann. ‘Fine’, you say, ‘so why should I know about a foreign bloke who took some pictures and changed his name?’ Well, many of the photos he took were both interesting and important, to the point that they have become iconic. He covered some of the most important events of his time and he also happened to live a rather glamorous life, mixing with more than one or two stars in the process. And he died young while working in Vietnam during the first ‘Indochina War’, a conflict which would lead on to the Vietnam War. Robert Capa actually covered five major wars, including the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), World War II and the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948. He revolutionised photo-journalism by being one of the first to work in the heat of the action, with the soldiers, at the front-line, surrounded by the gun-fire and seeing the fighting at first hand. He became a legend for his work and left a legacy which is well worth investigating if you have any interest in war, journalism, art or photography – or about looking cool under pressure.

First of all, a couple of examples of Capa’s work that show him alongside soldiers in Normandy following D-Day in 1944.

6079902662_b113ed48ca_o

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here) This might not look like a great photo but Capa was seriously unlucky. Nearly all of the photos that he took on D-Day, the Allied invasion of France on 6th June, 1944, were damaged and this is one of the few that survived. The Capa hallmark is clear though – he was there so that he could get the photo in the first place.

Some famous examples of Capa’s photography can be found here.

Robert Capa really is worth knowing a little bit about as he was so much more than just a photographer. In an age when we are so used to documentaries, film and photographs of war, we can easily ignore the work of those who first went to the frontline. To be a cameraman or photographer at the front today must be extraordinary, even with the digital technology, zoom lenses, flak jackets and helmets that are available; to have been doing this in the thirties, forties and fifties required a very unusual personality with extraordinary skills and attitude.

The young Endre Friedmann’s nickname was ‘capa’, which means ‘shark’ in Hungarian. He began his career in photography after dropping out of college in Berlin. Still called Endre Friedmann, he had moved to the German capital in 1931 in an effort to escape the tensions of Budapest, where the right-wing dictatorship under Admiral Horthy was causing increasing problems for the likes of him, as he was both Jewish and left-wing. He had been recommended to a famous photographer of the time, called Otto Umbehrs, by a fellow Hungarian who was also a famous photographer, Eva Besnyö. His first break came when he was sent to the Copenhagen Stadium in Berlin to photograph a well-known figure talking about politics; as luck would have it, Friedmann’s first professional photos were of the famous Communist, Leon Trotsky, then in exile and on the run from Joseph Stalin. Later on, Capa would enhance the story of that day a little, telling how he was sent at the last minute, without a ticket and how he had to sneak in to the hall with a group of workmen. The talk was actually advertised well in advance and Capa had a ticket but, even so, it was still a remarkable ‘first job’ by anyone’s standards. Luck can certainly play a part in many lives but you still need the skill to take advantage of the opportunities when they come your way and Friedmann showed early signs of his potential as he got really close to Trotsky and captured some of the passion and energy of the speech.

5625236164_aa2d052030_o - Copy

Leon Trotsky addressing the crowd at the Copenhagen Stadium, Berlin, in November 1932, the 19 year-old Endre Friedmann’s first assignment.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

But right wing politics was on the rise in Central Europe and Friedmann left Berlin soon after Hitler came to power in January 1933 and he soon arrived in Paris, one of many refugees from Nazism. He soon met and started going out with a German woman called Gerda Pohorylle (1910-1937), another photographer. In 1934, in an attempt to set up a business and make more money, Friedmann and Pohorylle created ‘Robert Capa’, claiming that they were agents for this ‘famous American’ photographer. They hoped to be able to charge the French newspapers double the normal fees for Capa’s work as he was so important; in reality they took the photos themselves. At the same time, Pohorylle also changed her name to Gerda Taro, as it was easier to spell and pronounce and it is by this name that she became famous in her own right as a photographer. The ‘Capa’ plan worked well for a while and they got numerous images into the French newspapers, some of which reflected the growing political tensions of the time. Friedmann photographed the workers’ strikes in Paris and went to the League of Nations in Geneva when the Abyssinian Emperor, Haile Salassie, begged for help in dealing with the growing threat posed by Italy’s fascist dictator, Mussolini. The double-identity of Friedmann/Capa was soon spotted but the quality of his work was acknowledged and he was given a job with an agency. As a result Friedmann became Robert Capa from that time on, a change which reflected the new dramas in his life.

In July 1936, news came through of the growing tensions in Spain. 1936 was a year of huge importance and drama, marking a step-change on the road to World War II and Capa would come to major prominence in this context by covering the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Like many people of that generation, he saw this conflict as a new type of struggle, an ideological battle of ideals and values, a fight to the death between ‘oppressive’ Fascism from the Right Wing and ‘liberating’ Left Wing ideals of Socialism and Communism. In Spain itself, the Fascists were the Nationalists, whose strength was rooted in the army, the landowners, the rich and the Catholic Church. Their leader was Colonel, later General, Francisco Franco. The Communists were the Republicans of the democratically elected Government, and were led by various people over the course of the war. It was a complex war which cannot be covered in detail here but certain important aspects can be mentioned.

Firstly, the Spanish Civil War was seen as a testing ground for World War II. There was supposedly an embargo on any country supplying resources to either side or getting directly involved in the fighting but, while this was enforced regarding most supplies to the Republicans, little was done to prevent help getting to Franco’s forces. The main aid to the Fascists came from Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, their men, weapons and tactics giving a decisive advantage which swung the war towards the Nationalists. Hitler in particular was impressed by what his troops had achieved, gaining confidence in the Wehrmacht’s (the German Army’s) potential as well as noting the reluctance of Britain and France to act, an sign of their commitment to appeasement in the 1930s. The most famous action by German forces came with the horrendous destruction of the symbolically important town of Guernica in the Basque region. The terrible deaths inspired one of the most famous works of art of the century, ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso.

241523730_1bf097fecf_z

‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso (1937). When asked by a German officer in Paris, in a disparaging tone, “Did you do this?”, Picasso replied, “No. You did.” The officer walked out.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Secondly, Capa was not alone as a foreigner drawn to Spain at this time. Thousands of people from around the world, but especially from Europe, made the long trek to support either the Fascists or the Republicans in what was seen as a struggle not just for a country but for something more. The Spanish Civil War was a fight over the future direction of humanity, a struggle between traditional forces of monarchy, money and faith, against a rising tide seeking equality, justice and opportunity for all. The Right and the Left would clash horribly over the coming years, tearing apart families, destroying great cities, and spilling blood across the plains and mountains of Spain. Many famous people would be among those who volunteered to fight. Those from the Left Wing who joined the ‘International Brigades’ on the side of the Communists draw most attention today. Just a few of the famous foreigners associated with the ‘International Brigades’ included: Ernest Hemingway (author), George Orwell (author), Martha Gellhorn (journalist), Paul Robeson (actor), Willy Brandt (future leader of Germany), Laurie Lee (author), Jack Jones (British Trade Union leader), Simone Weil (philosopher and Christian mystic), Andre Marty (French political activist) and many others, from the USSR in particular. Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ are among the most famous books to come out of the Spanish Civil War. Robert Capa would be among this group.

Thirdly, Robert Capa was an eloquent witness to this war which had such important echoes down the rest of the century. His images from this extraordinary struggle bore testament to the willingness of ordinary people to fight for what they believed in, inspiring many rebels and revolutionaries around the world. The repercussions of the Spanish Civil War went well beyond the day of the Fascist victory and the ceasefire of 1939. Spain did not get directly involved in World War II due to the damage and suffering of the Civil War. The failures of Britain and France to act, as the leaders of the League of Nations, weakened their credibility on the world stage and strengthened Hitler enormously. For the Nazis, Spain had provided a real testing ground for their technology and tactics which would later be used to such effect in the early years of World War II. The failure of the Communist forces, so heavily backed by Stalin and the USSR, bred a fear and anxiety in Moscow which would lead to the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Generalissimo Franco remained in power as the much loved and totally hated ‘Benign Dictator’ until his death in 1975. He left a divided country where hatred and tension is only now being openly addressed and overcome.

Robert Capa spent much of the three years of the civil war in Spain itself, working as part of the Republican cause against Franco. Much of his material was lost and it was feared it had been destroyed but thousands of negatives eventually turned up in Mexico City in the 1990s. The collection is today known as ‘The Mexican Suitcase’ and much of the material can be viewed online. His work included one of the most famous and controversial photos of the century, ‘The Falling Soldier’. Debate as to its authenticity continues to this day, many seeing it as a remarkable image of the heroism and futility of war, while others believe it was simply a set-up. The sense of it being ‘staged’ is strong but what cannot be denied is the impact so many of Capa’s images had on people around the world.

Robert_Capa,_La_muerte_de_un_miliciano

‘The Falling Soldier’, allegedly Federico Borrell, 5th September 1936. Probably the most famous and controversial photo ever taken by Robert Capa.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

His willingness to travel anywhere within the Republican zones, from Andalucía and Murcia in the south, to Madrid and Toledo in the centre, and to Barcelona and Bilbao in the north, meant he was always able to get closer to the action than just about anyone else. And he was always willing to go that little bit further than anyone else, capturing emotions that were then released into the lives of millions of readers around the world. His pictures from Bilbao just a few days after the notorious bombing of nearby Guernica by Hitler’s Condor Legion in April 1937 were especially powerful examples of the true cost of war.

Robert Capa’s legend was born in Spain. His courage, humour and skill were extraordinary, winning him many friends and admirers. His love of the high life was fostered, too, and he socialised with Ernest Hemingway amongst others. But the war brought tragedy into Capa’s own life, though, as he suffered the loss of his partner, Gerda Taro, herself a remarkable photographer, who was crushed to death by a tank during the Battle of Brunete near Madrid in late July 1937. Capa’s reputation as a great photographer was established during the Spanish Civil War. It brought him fame and celebrity status but these did nothing to stop his work, and his photography retained its power to tell stories that mattered and to challenge ideas throughout his life.

In January, 1938, a year or so before the end of the Spanish Civil War, but with Franco’s forces clearly in the ascendancy, Capa left for Asia to cover the troubles between China and Japan. A project had arisen to make a film documenting China’s resistance to Japanese expansion in the region. The main fighting for the Chinese was being led by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung), but the project was funded and controlled by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or more specifically, by his domineering and manipulative wife, ‘Madame Chiang’. Capa travelled to China from France in the company of two well-known authors, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Auden was an American poet while Isherwood is famous today, amongst other things, for his memoirs of life in Berlin which were turned into the famous film ‘Cabaret’. The project, called ‘The 400 million’, turned out to be a frustrating disaster but Capa once again captured many remarkable photographs reflecting the horrors of war. By September 1938, Capa was on his way back to Europe, arriving to chronicle the last few months before the Spanish Republican forces were finally defeated by Franco in what many saw as the ‘death of European democracy’.

A résumé of his life from early 1939 hints at more riches waiting to be discovered for those who study his brief life. He left Europe for the USA in 1939 and there he went through a sham marriage so as to stay in the country, as he was technically an ‘illegal immigrant’. He worked briefly for Life magazine in Mexico and the US before travelling to Britain. In 1943, Capa travelled to North Africa with Allied troops to photograph the invasion and, even more dramatically, he accompanied US troops who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6th June 1944. Most of his photos from that day were destroyed although a number of slightly out of focus images have survived. Capa loved gambling, champagne and the high life in general. He had too many affairs to mention, but three women who fell to his legendary vulnerability and charm were: the actress Ingrid Bergman, who starred alongside Humphrey Bogart in the classic film ‘Casablanca’; Hedy Lamarr, the star of the film, ‘Samson and Delilah’; and Vivien Leigh, wife of Laurence Olivier and the star of ‘Gone with the Wind’ with whom he had one of his many brief times of intimacy. Ingrid Bergman was a particularly significant relationship and she was just one of the many women who wanted to marry Capa but he refused to settle down, or to have anything to do with Hollywood, and so their relationship ended.

 

Ingrid_Bergman_1940_publicity

Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

Hedy_Lamarr-Algiers-38

Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000)

flickr-3410279330-hd

Vivien Leigh (1913-1967)

 

In 1947, Capa joined forces with various well-known photographers to create a new photographic agency, ‘Magnum’. He was also involved with the ‘Photo League’, a left-wing agency that wanted to encourage socially aware photographers in their work; in 1947 it was ‘blacklisted’ as subversive and, in the era of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts, it closed down. Capa already knew Pablo Picasso and he photographed him once more during these years and even took images of Matisse at work. Also around this time, Capa joined John Steinbeck, the author of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’, for a trip to the USSR. Capa’s freedom to photograph what he wanted was severely compromised and the results were disappointing, but he did get to visit Moscow, Stalingrad and Kiev, where he visited the Dynamo Stadium outside which, today, is found the memorial to FC Start (see Chapter 8). After a brief move into fashion photography linked with the work of Coco Chanel, which produced some interesting results but cost a fortune, mainly due to his huge expenses linked with drinking and gambling, Capa covered the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and also some of the conflicts in French Indo-China in the early 1950s. And in 1952, he managed to join the list of illustrious figures charged with being a Communist sympathiser as part of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts. Few men can have been so intimately linked with the great people, places and events of the middle years of the Twentieth Century. In truth, Capa needed pressure and danger to focus his mind and enable him to produce his best work. He sought out that danger and produced his most famous and important work at the front line in war zones. He really was a ‘war’ photographer.

Robert Capa died on 25th May, 1954, on the Red River delta in Vietnam. He had agreed to cover the conflict between the French and the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, standing in for a colleague. He had arrived as the French faced devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Capa was the first photographer/journalist to die in the conflict which would develop into the Vietnam War. His death at the age of just 40 was a tragedy but one with a horrible logic and predictability about it; as Hemingway said, ‘The percentages caught up with him’. Capa had survived so many near misses over the years that it was clear that his luck would run out at some time.

‘Capa’, you may remember, means ‘shark’. In becoming Capa, Endre Friedmann created a dynamic and creative genius, a flawed character loved by almost all who met him. His short life contained far more adventure, affairs, gambling, stories and champagne than most people could ever dream of having. Hungarian émigré, friend of Hemingway and Picasso, lover of Ingrid Bergman and countless other women, terrible card player, compulsive gambler, heavy drinker, depressive, unreliable, witty, charming, a fixer and a friend. Remember Robert Capa, a man who made taking photos the basis for a truly extraordinary life.

RobertCapabyGerdaTaro

Robert Capa at work, a photo taken by Gerda Taro.

(Author: Gerda Taro; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

Capa’s photographs can be viewed on-line but various studies of his work are available, such as: ‘This is war: Robert Capa at work’ by Richard Whelan and Christopher Phillips (Steidl, 2007) and ‘Robert Capa: the Definitive Collection’ by Phaidon Press Ltd, 2004). His work also appears in collections such as ‘Magnum Magnum’ by Brigitte Lardinois (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2009).

Book: ‘Blood and Champagne: The life of Robert Capa’ by Alex Kershaw (Da Capo Press, 2004).

Book: ‘Out of the shadows: A life of Gerda Taro’ by Francois Maspero (Souvenir Press Ltd., 2008).

Photos of Gerda Taro, the work of Capa’s long time partner can best be seen on-line.

 

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

Berlin, Olympia-Stadion (Luftaufnahme)

The Olimpiastadion, Berlin, 1936 – a place where important things happened. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

“Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.” Jesse Owens

The Olympics in the modern era were the result of the vision and hard work of a French noble called Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937). He was at least partly inspired by the popular games which had been taking place in the small English village of Much Wenlock in Shropshire since 1850. This gathering, which is still held each year, aimed, “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”, an ideal which the Baron wanted to share on a far grander scale.

Baron de Coubertin was a regular visitor to Much Wenlock and he was much inspired by what he saw. After several years of planning, athletes gathered in Athens in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games, the city being chosen, of course, because of the ancient games which had been held at Olympia from 776 BC to 393 BC. At those original games, winners received nothing more than a wreath of olive leaves, women were banned from competing and glory was all. There is no space here for a full history of the Olympics but some brief observations on a few key moments in recent history will hopefully show how fascinating and important the games have been in political as well as sporting terms.

The Baron himself: Pierre de Coubertin. He actually won a gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 – for poetry. They really did have a range of competitions in those days and he would probably have had a chance if they had held a bushy moustache competition.

(Author: Photograph from Bain News Service; Source: From the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division digital ID cph.3c22269)

1936 – BERLIN OLYMPICS

An obvious starting point for a discussion of politics in the Olympics is Berlin, 1936. For anyone visiting the city, the stadium there should be on the agenda: a Nazi building of beauty and importance, and the venue for one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time. The hero who dominated the Berlin Olympics of 1936 was an all-time great, namely the Black American star, Jesse Owens (1913-80). Owens’ life is a story which is truly worth knowing, not just for the fact that he won four gold medals in 1936, setting a record for athletics at one Olympics which was not matched until Carl Lewis at Los Angeles in 1984. (Some of you will mention Mark Spitz, who won seven golds in swimming at Munich in 1972 and Michael Phelps who went even further to win eight golds at Beijing in 2008, again in the pool. But four athletics golds is still a record for one Olympic Games). Owens’ achievements were remarkable in themselves but they have always had an extra dimension because of the context in which they happened. The place, the times, the opponents and the spectators all contributed to the glory of what he did.

Owens was a black athlete at a time when segregation was rife in the USA. Racism was the norm during much of his life at home but, by competing in Germany when the Nazis were in control, he faced one of the most racist systems in history. When he went to Berlin, Owens was already a legend of track and field having broken three world records and equalled a fourth, all within 45 minutes at a meeting in the state of Michigan, one afternoon in 1935. He was outstanding at the long jump and at sprinting, where he competed at 100m, 200m and in relays. However, at the time when his world records were set, he could not even get a scholarship because of his skin colour, having to work in part-time jobs to fund his athletics; many lesser athletes found such scholarships easy to come by.

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.

(Author: Unknown; Source: derivative work by Durova of Image:Jesse_Owens.jpg – reproduction of photograph in “Die Olympischen Spiele, 1936″ p.27, 1936.)

In 1936, Adolf Hitler was looking for a major propaganda victory at the Berlin Olympics. For the Nazis, the Olympics were a wonderful opportunity to show the world the glories of their system. Berlin had been awarded the games before Hitler came to power and he wanted to take every advantage he could from this opportunity. With the world in economic depression following the Great Crash of 1929, Germany would put on a show that would show it was stronger and more dynamic than any country in the world. It was to be not only a glorious event, but it would also show the superiority of the Aryan race as blond-haired, blue-eyed athletes from Germany were expected to dominate the Games. Indeed, Germany did finish top of the medals table, but they had far more athletes than anyone else and they had been supported in training to an extent no other team could match.

The Berlin Olympics saw several innovations, such as electronic timing, the Olympic Torch and the filming of the games. The film was made by one of the most important, famous and controversial film makers of all time, Leni Riefenstahl (pictured above during filming). She produced ‘Olympia’ using some dramatic new techniques of filming, creating a record of the games which is well worth watching today – as is her most famous film, the horrible and extraordinary ‘Triumph of the Will’.

(Author: Unknown, August, 1936; Source: German Federal Archives)

Hitler thoroughly expected success in the high-profile events, such as the 100 metres sprint, and this is where Jesse Owens achieved his greatest fame, winning gold in 103 seconds, an Olympic record – and remember there were no starting blocks and the track was ash. Hitler is alleged to have refused to meet Owens after he won the 100 metres and his other events but this is pretty much a myth. What is true is that Hitler had upset Olympic officials early on in the games by greeting only the German gold medallists. They told him to meet all or none in future and he settled for not meeting any, which included Owens. But there is no doubt that Hitler was appalled by Owens’ victories, at least according to his famous architect and confidante, Albert Speer.

Jesse Owens won gold medals in the 100m, 200m and the 100m relay, but it was in the long jump that sportsmanship really stood out. Owens was warming up before the heats and took a practise jump. Without warning, the officials classed this as his first jump. Furious and distracted, Owens fouled on his second jump and faced the prospect of elimination if he failed with his third jump. At this point, one of his German opponents, Carl ‘Luz’ Long, spoke to him and gave him some advice, telling him how good he was and that he could easily jump from well behind the board and still qualify. Owens took the advice, qualified and went on to win gold – leaving Long with the silver medal. Long was delighted and apparently very proud that he had helped Owens win through.

The photo below shows Luz Long and Jesse Owens at the Olympics. Long had actually approached Owens on their first day in the Berlin stadium. With Hitler and 100 000 spectators watching, Long shook Owens’ hand and chatted with him, a public display that went against the Nazi propaganda as they looked down on Owens as an ‘inferior’ person. Owens treasured their friendship, as the letter below shows.

Jesse Owens and Luz Long during the long-jump medal ceremony, 1936.

(Author: Unknown; Source: The original can be viewed here)

He wrote it to Owens in 1942, just after the United States declared war on Germany:

My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us and tell him that things can be different between men in this world.

“Your brother, Luz.”

Luz Long died on July 13, 1943. He had been wounded in action, fighting for the German Army, and was treated at a British field hospital. He was only 30 and was buried in a war cemetery in Sicily. In 1951, Jesse Owens kept his promise and found Long’s son in Germany. He said that the thing he valued most from his Olympic experience was his friendship with Luz Long, more so even than the medals and fame he won.

Remarkably, rather than being able to return to the USA as a great hero, Owens suffered at the hands of the American establishment. He received no recognition from President Roosevelt, a major negative point against one of America’s most famous Presidents. Nor did his successor, Harry Truman, acknowledge Owens’ achievements in any way. On his way home from the Games, Owens took some paid employment as a way of funding his expenses for the Olympics. Avery Brundage, the head of the US delegation, made sure Owens was stripped of his amateur status for doing some advertising, and so his career was brought to an end just as he faced a period of greatness. Brundage was a seriously important, and most unpleasant, man in Olympic history and he comes up again later in this section. Ruined by his loss of amateur status, Owens was reduced to racing against horses as a gimmick to make a living, a tragic development in the life of a truly great athlete.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story was that, straight after being greeted as a hero on the streets of Nazi Berlin after the Olympics, Jesse Owens returned to the USA to suffer continued racism. In New York, a reception was held in honour of the Olympic athletes at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Jesse Owens, the greatest champion of the Berlin Olympic Games, had to go upstairs in the lift used by the waiters because the lifts were segregated and the public lifts were for ‘whites only’. Nazi Germany was evil but the American system was hardly a beacon of justice and integrity.

Since Owens died in 1980, there has been some evidence to suggest that the above story is not entirely true. One American commentator, Grantland Rice, said he watched Owens through binoculars during the entire qualifying for the long jump competition. At no point did Owens have any contact with Long, according to Rice, making it impossible for Long to have given the famous advice. And in an article published in his local newspaper, a week after the long jump final, Long spoke of his joy and excitement at seeing Hitler applauding his fifth round jump which tied Owens at 7.67 metres. This is presented as evidence that Long was a loyal Nazi who was positive about Hitler, although one has to ask what else he was supposed to say in an age when devotion to Hitler was so widespread and so ‘expected’. In 1965, it was said that Owens admitted to ‘enhancing’ the story of his friendship with Long because it was what the people wanted to hear. In history, as in life, these difficulties over interpretation and truth often exist. Maybe the friendship and duel between Jesse Owens and Luz Long was not quite like the story that has been passed down over the decades. But so powerful is that story, that it is hard to see its power ever being diluted. The photos of them lying on the grass in the Olympic Stadium the evidence of Long running to hug and congratulate Owens after his final jump and the last letter Long wrote before his death in 1943 – they all stand as testimony to a remarkable friendship.

1956 – MELBOURNE OLYMPICS

The Melbourne Games were the first Olympics to be held after the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made his ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956. This speech, which is covered in more detail in the section on Khrushchev himself, had criticised Joseph Stalin, the hard-line Communist ruler of the USSR who had died in 1953. Khrushchev’s speech had sent shock waves around the world as it seemed to promise greater freedom and opportunity for those who lived in the Communist world behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. The Melbourne Olympics were, of course, in Australia and were, therefore, the first Games to be held in the southern hemisphere. They were not held in July-August but were moved to November-December, which meant they came just after the Hungarian Uprising (see Chapter 22) had been put down by troops of the Red Army and the Warsaw Pact. There had been huge loss of life and many people in Hungary had been deeply shaken by what had happened. The surprising scene for a symbolic Hungarian revenge would be the swimming pool in Melbourne, and, more specifically, the Olympic water polo tournament.

Hungary has a great tradition in swimming, having many outdoor pools and producing some fine swimmers over the years. The country has always been very strong in water polo, too, and. Hungary’s team made it to the semi-finals in Melbourne where there they had to face the team from the Soviet Union. Although the Hungarians actually had a stronger team, the Soviets considered themselves favourites, being from a much bigger country, and almost expected the Hungarians to collapse, respecting their superiority and power in the political world. Nothing could have been further from the truth and the match became the stuff of legend. The Hungarians won 4-0 but it is remembered not so much for its outcome as for the violence of the game and the blood that stained the pool by the end. One of the Hungarians, Ervin Zádor (1935-2012), left the pool with blood streaming from a cut eye after being punched by one of the USSR team. It became known as the ‘Blood in the water’ match and it was an iconic moment in sport, a great example of ‘David against Goliath’.

Ervin Zádor: Photo link

The Hungarians went on to beat the Yugoslav team 2-1 in the final and so win their fourth Water Polo Gold Medal. But the glory of victory could never make up for the horrors of the suffering in the Hungarian Uprising.

THE MEDALS TABLES AND DRUGS: 1948-1988

The Cold War officially saw no direct fighting between US and Soviet forces but tension and conflict was everywhere as each side aimed for superiority. In a dramatic move in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had promised a change in Communism’s approach to the West. Under ‘peaceful coexistence’, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised that the USSR would crush the USA by non-violent competition rather than by force. One example of this was to be the rise of athletics under Communism. By defeating Western athletes, the Communist system in the USSR and Eastern Europe would show itself to be a better way of life. ‘Better’ meant superior in attitude, tactics, diet and the like. In reality, it’s fair to say that a lot of it would also be down to professionalism and drugs. In the days before serious drug testing, almost anything could be used by athletes and, in this period, almost anything was. The most dramatic examples were seen in the power events for women where records set in the 1970s are well beyond anything achieved today. It was mainly down to huge injections of testosterone. It reached such levels in some women that they developed stubble and some have since had sex changes to become men. These athletes often suffered enormous horrors in the name of ‘peaceful coexistence’.

The Olympics became the focus of much attention and competition for the Superpowers from the 1950s onwards,. Whereas the Games had been dominated by the older Western powers and the host nations before World War II, the Superpowers came to prominence in the post-war period. The Medals tables shows this quite clearly:

Date and host city First (Gold medals) Second (Gold medals) Third (Gold medals)
1948 – London USA – 38 Sweden – 16 France – 10
1952 – Helsinki USA  – 40 USSR – 22 Hungary- 16
1956 – Melbourne USSR – 37 USA – 32 Australia – 13
1960 – Rome USSR – 43 USA – 34 Italy – 13
1964 – Tokyo USA – 36 USSR – 30 Japan – 16
1968 – Mexico USA – 45 USSR – 29 Japan – 11
1972 – Munich USSR – 50 USA – 33 East Germany – 20
1976 – Montreal USSR – 49 East Germany – 40 USA – 34
1980 – Moscow USSR – 80 East Germany – 47 Bulgaria – 8
1984 – Los Angeles USA – 83 Romania – 20 West Germany – 17
1988 – Seoul USSR – 55 East Germany – 37 USA – 36

 

There is so much to understand about the Olympics that they are a series of books on their own. But here it is worth noting just a few things.

Firstly, the medals table was won by either the USA or the USSR every time between 1948 and 2004. China broke that domination in 2008 and 2012. This is partly due to the fact that the USA and the USSR were large countries in terms of population and wealth but it really bears testimony to the fact that the Olympics became an event of great significance for both countries as the Cold War developed. For the USSR, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev in particular, sporting success was a way of showing the power of the nation and the Communist way of life. They could not really compete with the West in areas which demanded high levels of technology or established skills, such as motor racing, horse racing or golf, but they could develop in athletics, gymnastics and swimming. And, of course, the USA had to respond as leader of the ‘free world’ and the richest nation on earth.

Secondly, look at the rise of East Germany. With a population of only 18-20 million, just a third of the size of West Germany and with far less economic power, it came third in the world in 1972 and then second in 1976, 1980 and 1988. This represents extraordinary progress – with some serious drug abuse and an aggressive selection and training policy behind it.

Thirdly, there were a number of bans and boycotts which affected most of the Olympics between 1948 and 1984. Most of these were to do with the broader political situations of the time. Germany and Japan were banned from London in 1948 while the USSR refused to send a team. In 1956, the Melbourne Games saw seven teams absent because of the Suez Crisis (Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq), the Hungarian Revolution (Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands) and the situation in Taiwan/Formosa (the People’s Republic of China). In 1964, South Africa was banned because of its laws on apartheid, a ban which would last until 1992, while North Korea and Indonesia withdrew because of a dispute with the IOC. Munich in 1972 saw the absence of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the face of a threatened ban by African countries, as the country was led by a white-minority after it had declared independence from the UK. At Montreal in 1976, twenty-two African countries refused to compete, in protest at New Zealand playing South Africa at Rugby Union, while the People’s Republic of China continued its boycott over Taiwan. In 1980, the US team and many other Western countries abstained in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Next, the USSR and fourteen of its allies amongst the Communist countries boycotted the 1984 games in protest at the USA’s boycott of 1980 – and that led to Romania coming second as it was far stronger than most Western countries despite being relatively small. And, finally, North Korea surprised no one when they boycotted the Seoul Games of 1988 in a general protest against South Korea. In 1992, there was no formal boycott of the Olympic Games for the first time since Rome in 1960.

Lastly, a point about world records, especially in the women’s power events, as referred to above. Here is a list of a few records still on the books after quite a few years. Major progress has been made in so many other events while these have not been bettered. And so many are from those really successful countries: the USA, USSR and Communist Eastern Europe. Note that drug tests were stepped up after 1988. By any measure, this all looks rather fishy.

Events for women Athlete/country Date
High jump Stefka Kostadinova – Bulgaria 1987
Long Jump Galina Christyakova – USSR 1988
Shot Put Natalya Lisovskaya – USSR 1987
Discus Gabriele Reinsch – East Germany 1988
Heptathlon Jackie Joyner-Kersee – USA 1988
100m Florence Griffith-Joyner – USA 1988
100m hurdles Yordanka Donkova – Bulgaria 1988
200m Florence Griffith-Joyner – USA 1988
400m Marita Koch – East Germany 1985
800m Jarmila Kratochvilova – Czechoslovakia 1983

 

1968 – MEXICO OLYMPICS 

The Mexico Olympics took place at a time of great upheaval in the world and especially in the USA. It was during the Vietnam War and while the Civil Rights Movement was becoming increasingly violent. The year had already seen the assassinations of both the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, and the Democrat presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy. A new figure had appeared in the Civil rights Movement: Stokeley Carmichael had become Chairman of SNCC (‘snick’ or the ‘Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’, a civil rights organisation which had moved towards supporting aggression) and was also ‘Honorary Prime Minister’ of the violent ‘Black Panther’ movement which advocated an aggressive approach to Civil Rights for Black Americans. In 1968, Carmichael was proclaiming ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black is beautiful’, while the Black Panthers, led in their actions by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, were challenging the police on the streets of the USA. In addition to these events, Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion, had been imprisoned for three years in 1967 for refusing to join the army and fight in Vietnam. There were huge racial tensions around that filtered through to the US Olympic team that travelled south for the Mexico games.

The 1968 Olympics had already seen traumatic events with the deaths of many people in riots before the games even began. However, despite this huge tragedy, the incident which came to make the Mexico Olympics famous actually happened after the 200 metres final. It was won by a black athlete, Tommie Smith (b. 1944) of the USA, in a world record time of 19.83 seconds, while a second black American sprinter, John Carlos (b. 1945), won the bronze. In silver medal position was an Australian, Peter Norman (1942-2006). At the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos decided to make a protest about Civil Rights in the USA. They each put on a single black glove. They wore no shoes and rolled their trousers up, a symbol of the poverty of slaves who had gone without shoes in the past. And rather than putting their hands on their hearts and singing the national anthem, as was normal for US athletes, they bowed their heads, refused to sing and raised their fists in the salute of the Black Power movement. To put it mildly, all hell broke loose, with condemnation coming from many different people in the USA and in the IOC (the International Olympic Committee).

The President of the IOC at this time was none other than our old friend Avery Brundage, the man who had blocked Jewish athletes from competing in the 1936 relay team. Based on his previous record, it came as no surprise when Brundage ordered that both Smith and Carlos be expelled from the US team and from the Olympic village. When the US officials refused, Brundage threatened to expel the whole US team, so they then complied. The hypocrisy of this was extraordinary: Brundage had been present in Berlin for the 1936 Games as president of the US Committee and had done nothing in response to competitors’ use of Nazi salutes, one of the most blatant political gestures ever at the Games. And he had done nothing to help Jesse Owens either, being the man who had stripped him of his amateur status after the Olympics. The whiff of racism hung heavily around the proceedings.

The Silent Gesture: photo link

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics. They faced an outcry when they returned to the USA and never competed for the USA, again although both went on to play American Football professionally. Tommie Smith later to become an athletics coach, teacher and civil rights activist while John Carlos faced major financial problems after his brief career in American Football ended, often having to burn chopped up furniture when the nights were cold; he later found employment as a school athletics coach in California.

Peter Norman, the Australian silver medallist, was a 26-year-old PE teacher and a Salvation Army officer, at the time. It was Norman who had suggested the Smith and Carlos should share their one pair of gloves after Carlos forgot his. In his desire to help in the protest, Norman had worn an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, like the two American sprinters. Norman came under huge pressure from the Australian media for joining in the protest but he simply said, “I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way.” When he died in 2006, John Carlos said, “Peter Norman was my brother.” Peter Norman remains a sports hero in Australia to this day.

In 2008, John Carlos and Tommie Smith received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for their raised fist salute. In 2010, Smith tried to distance himself from the ‘Black Power’ salute which had, he said, ‘Ruined my life’, by putting his gold medal and running spikes up for auction although it seems no one has yet reached the starting bid of $250 000.

Over forty years later and the gesture still carried meaning in terms of rewards and pain.

1972 – MUNICH OLYMPICS

Munich 1972 was remembered for wholly different reasons to those of the previous games. It was the darkest hour of the Olympics, as a terrorist group called ‘Black September’ stormed the Olympic Village, holding numerous members of the Israel team hostage. After days of tension, eleven Israeli athletes and coaches, one West German policeman and five of the eight terrorists lost their lives.

The 1970s were an age of terrorist violence which focused in part on hostage taking and the hijacking of planes. The attack on Israeli athletes in Munich was tied in to the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a situation has dominated affairs in the Middle East for decades. The organisation that carried out the attack, ‘Black September’, made demands for the release of 234 Palestinians and other prisoners held by the Israelis. The Israeli Government, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, refused to negotiate and the tragedy developed. Having broken into the Olympic Village, the terrorists were able to take a group of Israeli athletes hostage in their accommodation at Block G 31, Connollystrasse in the Olympic Village.  Two members of the team were killed immediately with another nine being held hostage.

The incident ran from about 5am on 5th September in the Olympic Village to 4am the following day at Munich airport. In an apparent attempt to ensure a peaceful conclusion to the siege, the authorities agreed to fly the terrorists and their hostages out of the country, even though the deaths of some hostages had already occurred. But at the airport, the police and special services launched a desperate rescue attempt to free the hostages. It was chaotic and mismanaged. The attempt failed, leading to the deaths of the remainder of the hostages, a police officer and the five hostage takers.

Black September: photo link

The tragedy of this happening to Israeli athletes at the first Olympics held in Germany after World War II was clear. In the country which had seen the events of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ attempt to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the earth, these Israeli athletes suffered the worst terrorist attack in Olympic history.