26 January 2024

Fraternization in 1946 Germany

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 49-52:

The Occupation armies had been promised swift demobilisation. But while they waited to go home, many were determined to make the best of their lot. At first, Allied generals issued strict edicts against fraternisation of any kind with Germans. Relations between victors and vanquished were to be strictly official and formal. The Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, ordered American soldiers not to have any contact with locals. They could not visit German homes; no drinking with Germans in bars was allowed, nor shaking hands; no playing games with German children or sports with adults; no inviting them to Allied concerts, cinemas or parties. GIs faced a sixty-five-dollar fine for breaking the rules. Similar orders were issued by British commanders, mainly, as they admitted, as a sop to public opinion at home. Most crucially, there was to be no contact between soldiers and German women. It was hardly surprising that the rules proved impractical, almost impossible to enforce and so frequently disobeyed, they had to be dropped – first by Montgomery and then by the Americans.


For German women, friendships – or more – with Allied soldiers – were often the difference between life and death for them and their families; the GIs and Tommies gave them food, milk, medicines, and even luxuries, such as cigarettes and stockings, that they had been without for so long.


The conquerors had other attractions, too. There was an acute shortage of men. Two German men out of three born in 1918 did not survive World War Two, and a third of all children in Germany had lost their fathers. In the Berlin suburb of Treptow in February 1946 there were just 181 men for 1,105 women aged between eighteen and twenty-one. Major Arthur Moon, a Guards officer, was struck by what he saw: ‘In our thousands of miles that we travelled Germany, the most outstanding fact of all was the total absence of men aged between seventeen and forty. It was a land of women, children and old men.’ The Lucky Strike cigarettes, fresh coffee, nylon stockings and chocolate bars were appealing, but for the most part the relationships were not just transactional. American and even British men seemed far more attractive than the crippled veterans, returned prisoners of war, with the weariness of defeat about them, and the old men who were left in Germany. The occupiers seemed glamorous and desirable – not least since so many foreign films, books and music had been banned in the culturally oppressive Third Reich.


Social liberals were as shocked as moralists by illegitimacy levels. Nearly a hundred thousand babies were born to unmarried women in Germany in 1946, around a third of all births and three times the 1945 rate. Officially recorded abortions were more than twice that number, but the real, hidden, figure was assumed to be many times higher, though nobody knows for certain the exact figure. The cost of an abortion in 1946, illegally and dangerously obtained in back streets, was high, around a thousand marks – or, in the currency used far more widely, two cartons of Lucky Strikes and a half pound of coffee. A perhaps happier outcome was the number of GI brides: around twenty-five thousand in 1946/1947.

25 January 2024

Perils of De-Nazification in 1946

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 36-37:

Early in the afternoon of 20 February a massive gas and coal dust explosion ripped through the Monopol-Grimberg mine at Unna, around twenty kilometres east of Dortmund. Nearly five hundred men were trapped underground. Just weeks earlier most of the mine’s inspectors and managers had been fired because of their Nazi affiliations. They had been replaced, as a temporary measure, by long-retired inspectors who were no longer up to the job, or young men who had been press-ganged to work in the mines but had very little experience. The rescue crew sent to free the trapped miners had no training and was totally incompetent to handle a disaster of this scale. There was only one manager left at the Unna colliery with any expertise or knowledge of the mine. But as Street told Montgomery in his second report on a Ruhr mining disaster in weeks, this man, a chief inspector, was unfit for work.

‘Towards midnight on the day of the explosion it became clear that operations were not proceeding to any set plan, although ample material and sufficient appliances had been provided,’ said Street, and the inspector in charge was suffering from a serious breakdown. ‘He was unable to concentrate on his work and…[was] extremely nervous.’ A week earlier he had been denounced by workers at the mine as an enthusiastic National Socialist and arrested by occupation investigators, whose job was to cleanse Germany of fascism. He was released pending further enquiries and was, for the time being, allowed to return to work. But he was a broken and terrified man – ‘not suitable to be in charge of rescue work,’ Street stated. In the early hours of the morning the former director of the mine – a well-known Nazi Party member from the early 1930s, much loathed in the neighbourhood – was released from jail to manage the crisis. With some quick and effective action he was able to save 57 of the trapped miners, but 417 men died. It was the worst coal-mining disaster in German history.

The two accidents might well have happened anyway. It is unlikely that the absence of senior mining officials in Germany at the time was the only, or perhaps the principal, cause of the disasters. But many Germans believed that it was and saw their occupiers’ efforts to seek out and condemn ‘ordinary’ Nazis as unjust, futile and counterproductive. More to the point, the Allies, at least the British, Americans and French in the Western zones, soon came to see things the same way. The accidents at Unna and Peine starkly highlighted the dilemma the Allies faced – and marked the turning point of the Occupation, transforming it from an act of retribution into an experiment in paternalism; from reforming zeal into crowd control. The Germans were starving, and millions of desperate refugees were streaming into the occupied zones. The most pressing need was to revive the country’s failing economy and rebuild its ruined social structure. Without the mines to fuel the engine of German industry, it couldn’t be done.

And it couldn’t be done without the Nazis. A month after the explosion at the Monopol-Grimberg mine, Arthur Street wrote to his superiors in London. ‘We are very much alive to the dangers inherent in too drastic a policy of de-Nazification in industry. These…[mining] disasters may well be an indication that we have already gone dangerously fast in pressing our present policy.’ In the first six months after the war 333 mining officials in the British zone had been fired, jailed, or suspended while they were investigated for Nazi Party affiliations. Within weeks of the Unna disaster 313 of them had got their jobs back.

24 January 2024

Soviet Famine of 1946

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 84-86:

Stalin saw threats everywhere, even from those who were starving. The war left famine in its wake, the worst in the Soviet Union since the 1920s and early 1930s. The 1945 harvest was poor, followed by terrible weather in Ukraine, drought in Moldova and unseasonable rain which destroyed crops in Siberia. The following year’s harvest was one of the worst on record. The grain crop was a third of its 1940 level, the potato yield less than half. Between one and a half and two million people died from starvation. And the famine was exacerbated by ideology: the Soviets were sending large quantities of food to East Germany and other parts of its new empire in an attempt to prop up the popularity of local communist parties. They were also stockpiling food in case growing international tensions led to war.

The Kremlin used the same methods that had been adopted in the 1930s – grain was requisitioned from the collective farms and the peasants were accused of hoarding. Stalin sent his henchmen to demand delivery of the quotas of grain each region had been ordered to hand over to the State. Unsurprisingly, the results were the same; the famine worsened.

Typically, Stalin had little sympathy with the victims and blamed them for their own plight. Khrushchev was sent to Ukraine, as he had been in the 1930s when he was Party Secretary there. He was hardened to suffering in the Soviet countryside and had caused a good deal of it himself, sending thousands of people to their deaths in the camps. Now he reported that famine in Ukraine was ‘dire’ and that people were resorting to cannibalism. Stalin reproved him: ‘This is spinelessness. They’re trying to play tricks on you. They are telling you this on purpose, trying to get you to pity them and get you to use up your grain reserves.’

The State raised prices and halted bread rationing among workers in rural areas, but not the peasants on farms, meaning they had virtually no bread though they were producing the grain to make it. The same day, the little economic freedom that they possessed was taken away. Farmers on collectives were banned from growing produce for themselves on the tiny plots of land they had been allowed before.

Thousands of people who complained about the famine publicly were sent to the Gulag. Predictably, theft of food increased. In the summer and early autumn of 1946, 53,369 people were charged with stealing bread; three-quarters of them were sent to jail. New laws were introduced to raise sentences from three months to three years; at the stroke of a pen Stalin personally increased the sentence to five years – and more for repeat offenders. Starving people were sent to labour camps for years for stealing potatoes lying in a field.

In Ukraine, some people fought back. Partisans from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the UPA (Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya), fought a low-level guerrilla campaign against Soviet forces, predominantly in western Ukraine and the eastern part of Poland in the Carpathian mountains, where at one point it numbered more than 30,000 soldiers. The UPA’s dream was an independent Ukraine of ethnic Ukrainians and for much of the war they had been fighting Poles as hard as they had fought Soviets. The sporadic fighting was little more than a minor irritant to the Kremlin, though Stalin took no chances. He sent more than 100,000 troops of his own, and pressed the Polish army to join the Russians in combating them. He used tried and tested methods – between 1945 and the end of 1947 more than 182,000 Ukrainians, mostly peasants or civilians who had nothing to do with the UPA, were despatched to the Gulag. The UPA fought on until the end of 1949, when they were finally crushed by the Soviets, though at the cost of over 1,200 Red Army casualties.

23 January 2024

U.S. Status in 1946

From 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2015), Kindle pp. 12-14:

The US experience of World War Two was entirely different from that of every other combatant nation. There was much hardship, to be sure, and loss of lives. But America was the only country to emerge from the conflict better off than when it entered it in 1941. No attempt had been made to invade and occupy the country; no cities were destroyed by bombs. There were no refugees roaming the American countryside, desperately searching for food and shelter as in much of Europe and Asia. There were no direct war casualties from military action in mainland America. Around 420,000 Americans from the services died in combat or went missing in action, which, given the scale of the fighting on three continents, is a modest number. British losses, at around 330,000 service personnel, were lower, but from a population about a quarter of America’s size. And combined American and British losses were fewer than Russian deaths in the Siege of Leningrad alone.

America’s economy boomed as never before. Its annual GNP doubled between 1940 and 1945 from $102 billion to $214 billion. Unemployment fell from 14.6 per cent to a historic low of 1.2 per cent. The war dragged the US out of the Depression. There had been rationing on a range of products such as milk, sugar, gasoline, rubber for tyres, some meats and vegetable oils, and even typewriter ribbon. But for most people, living standards improved dramatically as incomes rose by more than 50 per cent. The war was a leveller economically, unusually so in American history. The share of income of the top 5 per cent of the population fell by almost a fifth and remained that way until the gap began widening again in the 1970s.

America was the granary of the world, and its industrial workshop. At the beginning of 1946 more goods were manufactured in the US than in the rest of the world put together. During the war, America had created a new financial system that ensured the US dollar would become the world’s chief trading currency, which it continued to be well into the twenty-first century. Most Americans believed not only that US soldiers had done most of the fighting to win the war but, justifiably, that American money had bankrolled the Allies to help with the rest.

Immediately post-war, Americans wanted a brief period to celebrate victory. After that, the demands were equally uncomplicated. Dean Acheson, an advisor to the President who would become US Secretary of State three years later, put it in straightforward fashion. ‘I can state in three sentences what the popular foreign policies are among the people of the United States. 1. Bring the boys home. 2. No playing Santa Claus. 3. Don’t be pushed around.’ They also wanted the security that wealth could provide.

Before the war the only substantial US military base outside homeland America was in the Philippines. But Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of America’s development as a military superpower. In 1946/47 the defence budget was $13 billion, 36 per cent of national spending and thirteen times more than it had been for each of the nine pre-war years. It was to remain at similar levels for the next three decades. By the end of the war, new naval and air bases had been leased in the Americas, in Iceland, Greece and Turkey, in Korea and the Middle East. More than half a million US troops were stationed in Europe. As it turned out, many thousands would remain for the next forty years – and America would be the strongest military power in Europe. But however counter-intuitive it might seem in retrospect, at the time it was assumed on both sides of the Atlantic that the GIs would soon return home. When the final details of D-Day were being planned in spring 1944, the US military’s top brass asked President Roosevelt how long he expected occupation troops to stay in Germany and elsewhere after the war was won. The Commander-in-Chief was explicit: ‘At least a year, maybe two,’ he replied. But not more. That was still America’s clear intention throughout 1946. It changed only when the Big Three alliance began falling apart and perceptions in Washington hardened about the USSR’s objectives in Europe. Meanwhile, America’s allies – including the Soviets – believed the same. Winston Churchill wrote a note to the British cabinet before VE Day emphasising the point: ‘We must not expect that the United States will keep large armies in Europe for long after the war,’ he said. ‘I doubt there will be any American troops in Europe four years after the cease-firing.’

There was to be no return to isolationism. US soldiers, engineers and an army of idealistic bureaucrats would remake Japan as a modern democracy in the American image, but disarmed so it could never again pose a threat to its neighbours or to the United States. And though the plan was to bring the troops home, it was never the intention to withdraw from European peace-making and diplomacy.

19 January 2024

Dalrymple on the Mahabharata

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 321-323:

While its equivalents in the west - the Odyssey, Beowulf or the Nibelungenlied — have died out and are only remembered now by the most bookish of scholars, the story of the Mahabharata is still the common property of every Hindu in the subcontinent, from the highly educated Brahmin scientist down to the untouchable roadside shoe-black. Recently, when a 93-episode adaptation was shown on Indian television, viewing figures never sank beneath 75 per cent and rose to a peak of 95 per cent, an audience of some 600 million people. In villages across India, simple Hindu peasants prostrated themselves in front of their village television screens for two hours every Sunday morning. In the towns the streets were deserted; even the beggars seemed to disappear. In Delhi, government meetings had to be rescheduled after one memorable Sunday morning when almost the entire cabinet failed to turn up to an urgent briefing.

The Mahabharata is more than worthy of its fame. Even in translation it retains the narrative and moral power of a Shakespearian tragedy, but with the action grafted on to the Indian equivalent of the world of Homer. The epic occupies roughly the same place in the Indian national myth as that held in Britain by tales of King Arthur, but for Hindus the Mahabharata also retains the religious significance of the New Testament: included within it is the Bhagavad Gita, the most subtle, wise and sacred of all Hindu religious texts.

The Mahabharata opens in a hermitage on the edge of the Naimisa Forest. There a group of rishis [sages] are preparing for the night when the bard Ugrasravas arrives on the threshold. The sadhus [ascetics] invite the bard to join them on the condition that he amuses them with tales of his travels. Ugrasravas tells them that he has just returned from the great battlefield of Kurukshetra and agrees to tell the story of the apocalyptic war which reached its climax on those plains. He introduces the epic by emphasizing its sacred power.

‘A Brahmin who knows all the four Vedas [the Hindu Old Testament] but does not know this epic, has no learning at all,’ he says. ‘Once one has heard this story no other composition will ever again seem pleasing: it will sound as harsh as the crow sounds to one who has heard the song of the cuckoo. From this supreme epic comes the inspiration of all poets: no story is found on earth that does not rest on this base. If a man learns the Bharata as it is recited, as it once fell from the lips of Vyasa — what need has that man of ablutions in the sacred waters of Pushkar?’

In sheer length, the epic is still unrivalled. It consists of some 100,000 Sanskrit slokas (stanzas), eight times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey put together, four times the length of the Bible; quite simply it is the longest composition in the world. Yet miraculously, even a generation ago, it was common to find wandering storytellers who knew the whole vast epic by heart: they would sit in the coffee houses or on the steps of the Delhi Jama Masjid and recite the entire poem without a break over the course of seven days and seven nights.

Even today, when the wandering bard has followed the Indian lion into near-extinction - killed off, in the case of the epic, by Hindi movies and national television - it is just possible, in very remote places, to find men who still know the epic. A friend of mine, an anthropologist, met one such wandering story-teller in a little village of Andhra Pradesh. My friend asked him how he could remember so huge a poem. The bard replied that in his mind each stanza was written on a pebble. The pile of pebbles lay before him always; all he had to do was to remember the order in which they were arranged and to read the text from one pebble after another.

In the form in which it survives today, the Mahabharata is a colossal miscellany of Hindu religious discourses, folk tales and legends. But all these diversions are built up around a central story of almost minimalist simplicity.

16 January 2024

Aurangzeb's Effect on Delhi

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 238-240:

The unnatural act of Dara’s murder and the treacherous overthrow of Shah Jehan [his father] acted like a curse upon Delhi. Never again did it match that apex of prosperity that it reached during the brief nine years that Shah Jehan ruled from the Red Fort.

Aurangzeb spent as little time as possible in the city, preferring to continue his campaigns from Aurangabad, his own foundation in the Deccan. Delhi had lived by the court and when the court disappeared, the city emptied like a basin of water whose plug had been removed. Travellers began to describe the city as being like a ghost town: ‘The city appears to be a desert when the King is absent,’ wrote the French traveller Jean de Thévenot. ‘If there have been four hundred thousand Men in it when the King was there, there hardly remains the sixth part in his absence.’

But it was not just the absence of the Emperor. Aurangzeb’s rule proved harsh and repressive. Spies were everywhere; men never knew whom they could trust. All the things that had made Delhi an amusing and lively city were one by one forbidden. Dancing women and courtesans were forced to marry. Prostitution was banned, as was wine-drinking, hashish-smoking and the playing of music.

More serious were Aurangzeb’s actions against non-Muslims. His fundamentalist outlook led him to destroy Hindu temples across the empire. He imposed a special tax on all Hindus and executed Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the great teachers of the Sikhs. The religious wounds he opened up have never again entirely healed; but at the time they literally tore the country in two. From the fissures between the two religions, there emerged whispers of sorcery, of strange succubuses, of unrest among the city’s djinns. In the wilds of Rajasthan a naked army of shaven-headed Hindu sadhus was rumoured to be marching on Delhi, led by an old sorceress. Early reports had the sadhus sweeping the Mughal army in front of them — until, so it was said, Aurangzeb deployed strange magic against them.

It was the golden age of the fakirs. Their activity amazed and baffled even the sceptical Bernier: ‘They tell any person his thoughts, cause the branch of a tree to blossom and to bear fruit within an hour, hatch an egg in their bosom within fifteen minutes, producing what ever bird may be demanded, and make it fly around the room.’

Later, when Aurangzeb ordered the decapitation of the naked fakir Sarmad, an Armenian Jew who had converted to Islam, the sage allegedly picked up his head and walked up the steps of the Jama Masjid. There he said a final set of prayers before departing to the heavens.

Meanwhile in the court, the dam-burst of treachery unleashed by Aurangzeb left the principal players wading deeper and deeper into the darkness. Roshanara Begum, the Lady Macbeth of Delhi, had taken over the position vacated by Jahanara Begum: chief of the Imperial Harem. She gathered about her a vast retinue and used to enjoy making pompous processions through the streets of Delhi. But then, during the monsoon of 1661, she made her fatal mistake.

Aurangzeb had been struck down with a fever, and it was believed that he was beyond recovery. Believing this to be the case, Roshanara stole the Imperial seal and used it to forge an order that proclaimed Aurangzeb’s nine-year-old youngest son to be the next Emperor in preference to the rightful heir. This switch was intended to enable Roshanara to retain her influence by stepping in as the child’s regent. But at this awkward moment, Aurangzeb suddenly recovered. He discovered from his eunuchs what Roshanara had been up to, and, despite her support for him over many years, he disgraced her. Later, after she was caught red-handed in an orgy with nine lovers in her Red Fort harem apartments, Aurangzeb arranged for his sister to be discreetly poisoned. She died in great pain, ‘swollen out like a hogshead, leaving behind her the name of great lasciviousness’. She was buried under the pavilion she had built in the Roshanara Gardens.

With his sister poisoned, Aurangzeb was now able to trust no one. In his old age he marched to and fro, viciously putting down rebellions, trying to impose his harsh regime on his unwilling subjects. On his death in 1707 the empire fragmented. Yet the Mughal line never quite died out.

15 January 2024

Taj Mahal's Husband and Son

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 195-196:

‘After the death of his beloved Queen Taj Mahal,’ wrote Manucci, ‘Shah Jehan selected in Hindustan the city of Dihli in order to build there a new city as his capital. He gave it the name Shahjehanabad — that is to say, “Built by Shah Jehan”. He expended large sums in the construction of this city, and in the foundations he ordered several decapitated criminals to be placed as a sign of sacrifice.’

Shah Jehan was forty-seven when he decided to move his court from Agra to Delhi. He had just lost his wife; his children were now grown up. The building of a new city was the middle-aged Emperor’s bid for immortality.

Shah Jehan had himself come to power twelve years earlier after a bloody civil war. He had been the able but ruthless third son; to seize the throne he had had to rebel against his father and murder his two elder brothers, their two children, and two male cousins. Yet while Shah Jehan was capable of bouts of cold-blooded brutality, he was still the most aesthetically sensitive of all the Mughals. As a boy of fifteen he had impressed his father, the Emperor Jehangir, with the taste he demonstrated in redesigning the Imperial apartments in Kabul. As the young Emperor he had rebuilt the Red Fort in Agra in a new architectural style that he had himself helped to develop. Then, on his wife’s death, he had built the Taj Mahal, arguably the most perfect building in all Islam.

Before her death Mumtaz Mahal had borne Shah Jehan fourteen children; of these, four sons and three daughters survived to adult-hood. The eldest was Dara Shukoh - the Glory of Darius. Contemporary miniatures show that Dara bore a striking resemblance to his father; he had the same deep-set almond eyes, the same straight, narrow nose and long, full beard, although in some pictures he appears to have been slightly darker and more petite than Shah Jehan. Like the Emperor he was luxurious in his tastes and refined in his sensibilities. He preferred life at court to the hardships of campaigning; he liked to deck himself in strings of precious stones and belts studded with priceless gems; he wore clothes of the finest silk and from each ear lobe he hung a single pearl of remarkable size.

Nevertheless Dara was no indolent voluptuary: he had an enquiring mind and enjoyed the company of sages, Sufis and sannyasin (wandering ascetics). He had the Hindu Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga-Vashishta translated into Persian and himself composed religious and mystical treatises. The most remarkable was the Majmua-ul-Baharain (‘The Mingling of the Two Oceans’), a comparative study of Hinduism and Islam which emphasized the compatibility of the two faiths and the common source of their divine revelations. In an age when even the most liberal of Mughal Emperors used to demolish Hindu temples, this was both a brave and novel work; but some considered Dara’s views not just unusual but actually heretical. In private, many of the more orthodox Muslim nobles furrowed their brows and wondered how the crown prince could possibly declare, as one noble put it, ‘infidelity and Islam to be twin brothers’.

14 January 2024

World's Oldest Bookbinding

From "World's Oldest Book," by Ilana Herzig, in Archaeology, Jan/Feb 2024:

A 10-by-6-inch piece of papyrus is, researchers now believe, part of the world’s first book. And, like many of the volumes that fill offices, libraries, and homes, it has had many lives. The papyrus fragment, which was unearthed along with hundreds of other pieces of papyrus at the site of El Hibeh in 1902, began as a bound document dating to 260 B.C. that recorded taxation rates for beer and oil scrawled in Greek letters using black ink.


The discovery pushes the origins of bookbinding back by centuries. “The oldest book previously known was from the first or second century A.D., so this predates anything by up to 400 years,” Zammit Lupi says. “The book could be indicative of how transactions happened, of how people lived, wrote, and passed information to each other. Most importantly, we learned that the structure of the book, as opposed to a scroll, existed well before we thought.”

13 January 2024

Mughal India's Half-Caste War Hero

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 126-129:

Facing the entrance gates of William Fraser’s bungalow, directly across what was then an open park, stood the haveli of Colonel James Skinner, the legendary founder of Skinner’s Horse. Like Ochterlony, Skinner had received a title from the Mogul Emperor: Nasir-ud-Dowlah Colonel James Skinner Bahadur Ghalib Jang. Nevertheless, Skinner was always known to Delhi-wallahs simply as Sikander Sahib: to the people of the capital he was a reincarnation of Alexander the Great.

Skinner’s irregular cavalry - into which William’s personal army was eventually absorbed - enabled the East India Company to secure great chunks of North India for the Union Jack. With their scarlet turbans, silver-edged girdles, black shields and bright yellow tunics, Skinner’s cavalrymen were, according to Bishop Heber, ‘the most showy and picturesque cavaliers I have seen’. Moreover, another contemporary wrote that they were ‘reckoned, by all the English in this part of the country, [to be] the most useful and trusty, as well as the boldest body of men in India.’

But Skinner was more than some starchy military caricature: he was also an engaging companion, an entertaining conversationalist, a builder of churches, temples and mosques, and the host of some of the most magnificent nautches ever held in the Indian capital. ‘I have seldom met a man who on so short an acquaintance gained so much on the heart and goodwill as this man,’ wrote James Fraser soon after their first meeting in 1815. ‘He has seen a great deal and run many risks and consequently has much anecdote and many adventures to relate ... yet there is the most total absence of all affectation, pretention, pride or vanity.’

Skinner and William Fraser were best friends, business partners and brothers-in-arms. Fraser became the second-in-command of Skinner’s Horse while Skinner joined Fraser and another Mughal nobleman, Ahmed Baksh Khan, in a partnership which imported stallions from Afghanistan and TransOxiana for sale in the Delhi bazaars.


Skinner’s father, the Scottish mercenary Hercules Skinner, was the son of a former Provost of Montrose. When James Skinner raised his cavalry regiment he had the Skinner clan emblem - the bloody hand - tattooed on the bellies of his Hindu recruits. But Skinner had Indian as well as Scottish blood in his veins; his mother was a Rajput princess (known to her Scottish in-laws as Jeannie), and according to Fraser, in his looks Skinner was ‘quite a Moor, not a negro, but a Desdemona Moor, a Moor of Venice’. It was this mixed racial inheritance that determined Skinner’s career.

By 1792 it had already become impossible for anyone with even one Indian parent to receive a commission in the East India Company army. So, although he had been brought up in an English school in British Calcutta, the eighteen-year-old James Skinner was forced to leave westernized Bengal and accept service in the army of the Company’s principal rivals in India.

During the course of the eighteenth century, the Hindu Mahratta confederacy had extended its power over much of the subcontinent, from the fastness of the Deccan to the borders of the fertile Punjab. One reason for the Mahrattas’ success had been their skilful use of European and Eurasian mercenaries. Skinner was quickly welcomed into their ranks and before long was even permitted to raise his own irregular cavalry force.


Skinner’s spectacular career in the ranks of the Mahrattas was, however, brought to an abrupt close. In 1803 the great Confederacy prepared to take on the British. Despite their proven loyalty, Skinner and the other Anglo-Indians in the Mahrattas’ service were summarily dismissed and given only twenty-four hours to quit Mahratta territory. Just as Skinner’s mixed blood had barred him from the Company army, so the same disability came to block his career in the ranks of their rivals; his birth acted, as James Fraser put it, ‘like a two-edged blade, made to cut both ways against him’. Although Skinner’s Horse was still ineligible to join the British army, Lord Lake, the British Commander in North India, eventually permitted the troop to fight as an irregular unit under the Company flag. Their job was to act as mounted guerrillas: to scout ahead of the main force; to harass a retreating enemy; to cut supply lines and to perform covert operations behind Mahratta lines.

In the years that followed there were several humiliating rebuffs by the British establishment: Skinner’s estates, given to him by the Mahrattas, were revoked; his pay and rank were limited; the size of his regiment cut by a third. It was only much later, after a series of astonishing victories over the Sikhs and the Gurkhas, that Skinner’s Horse was officially absorbed into the Company army and Skinner made a Lieutenant Colonel and a Companion of the Bath.

12 January 2024

Twilight of Delhi, 1739-1857

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 95-96:

The Twilight is bounded by two of the greatest disasters in Delhi’s history: the Persian massacres of 1739 and the equally vicious hangings and killings which followed the British recapture of Delhi after the 1857 Indian Mutiny.

The first massacre took place in the wake of an unexpected invasion of India by the Persian ruler, Nadir Shah. At Karnal in the Punjab the newly-crowned Shah defeated the Mughal army and advanced rapidly on Delhi. He encamped at the Shalimar Gardens, five miles north of the city. Having been invited into Delhi by the nervous populace, Nadir Shah ordered the massacre after a group of Delhi-wallahs attacked and killed 900 of his soldiers in a bazaar brawl. At the end of a single day’s slaughter 150,000 of the city’s citizens lay dead.

Nadir Shah’s massacre exacerbated the decline of the Mughal Empire which had been steadily contracting since the death of Aurangzeb, the last Great Mogul, in 1707. By the end of the eighteenth century Delhi, shorn of the empire which gave it life, had sunk into a state of impotent dotage. The aristocracy tried to maintain the life-style and civilization of the empire, but in a ruined and impoverished city raped and violated by a succession of invaders. The destruction created a mood conducive to elegy, and the great Urdu writers made the most of the opportunity. ‘There is no house from where the jackal’s cry cannot be heard,’ wrote Sauda. ‘The mosques at evening are unlit and deserted. In the once beautiful gardens, the grass grows waist-high around fallen pillars and the ruined arches. Not even a lamp of clay now burns where once the chandeliers blazed with light...’

On the throne in the Hall of Audience in the Qila-i-Mualla, the Exalted Fort, sat the Emperor Shah Alam. He was a brave, cultured and intelligent old man, still tall and commanding, his dark complexion offset by a short white beard. He spoke four languages and maintained a harem of five hundred women; but for all this, he was sightless - years before, his eyes had been gouged out by Ghulam Qadir, an Afghan marauder whom he had once kept as his catamite. Like some symbol of the city over which he presided, Shah Alam was a blind emperor ruling from a ruined palace.

At his court, the elaborate etiquette of Mughal society was scrupulously maintained; poetry, music and the arts flourished. But beneath the surface lustre, all was rotten. Servants prised precious stones from the pietra dura inlay on the walls to sell in Chandni Chowk. The old court costumes were threadbare; the plaster was peeling. Mountains of rubbish accumulated in the city streets and amid the delicate pavilions of the Exalted Palace.

Unable to see the decay around him, Shah Alam still could not escape its stench.

11 January 2024

Old Delhi Exiles in Karachi

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 60-62:

In Delhi I had been given an introduction to Shanulhaq Haqqee, a pipe-smoking Urdu poet and the direct descendant of Abdul Haq, a famous literary figure at the court of Shah Jehan. Shanulhaq fled from Delhi in 1947. He left to escape the rioting and meant to return as soon as order was re-established. He was never allowed to except much later, for a week, as a tourist from a foreign country. It was almost exactly seven hundred years since the first of his line arrived in Delhi from Turkestan to fight in the Deccani wars of the thirteenth-century Sultan, Ala-ud-Din Khalji.

Shanulhaq was the only person I had been able to find who was actually a friend of Ahmed Ali. ‘Ali doesn’t mix much,’ a Pakistani friend had told me. ‘He never really fitted in in Karachi.’ ‘He’s a bit abrupt,’ said someone else. ‘You know ... rather bitter.’

Shanulhaq Haqqee offered to drive me over to see Ahmed Ali the evening of my arrival. But first, he said, I should come and meet some other Delhi exiles. He would expect me at his house in time for tea.

The exiles - now elderly and respectable figures - sat sipping jasmine tea from porcelain cups while they nibbled pakoras and cucumber sandwiches. On the wall hung a faded sepia photograph of Shanulhaq’s family in their haveli near the Ajmeri Gate around 1912; beside it hung another of a very small boy dressed in late Mughal court dress: a brocaded sherwani, baggy white pyjamas, and on his head, a tiny red fez. It was Shanulhaq as an infant.

‘Of course Karachi Urdu is really pure Delhi Urdu,’ explained a judge, biting a pakora. ‘Now that they have Sanskritized all the dialects in India, this is the last place you can hear it spoken.’

Outside, you could hear the dull drone of the Karachi traffic. The city kept reminding me of the Gulf: the new motorways, the glossy high-rise buildings, the Japanese cars. But when you talked to the exiles it was the Palestinians who came to mind. Each one treasured his childhood memories like a title-deed. Each one knew by heart the stories of the catastrophe, the massacres and the exodus; the forty-year-old tales of exile flowed from everyone’s lips like new gossip. Each one talked about the old city as if it remained unchanged since the day they had departed.

‘Have you ever been to Gulli Churiwallan?’ asked the judge, referring to a dirty ghetto now full of decaying warehouses. ‘The havelis there are the most magnificent in all Delhi. The stonework, the fountains ...’


‘Do they still teach Ghalib in the schools?’ asked the newsreader, referring to the great Urdu poet. ‘Or is it just Kalidasa and the Ramayana?’

‘I bet no one even knows who Ghalib is in Delhi these days,’ said the judge. ‘They probably think he’s a cricketer.’

Later, Shanulhaq drove me slowly through the streets of Karachi. As we went, he pointed out the shops which had once filled the streets of Delhi: the English Boot House, once of Connaught Place; Abdul Khaliq, the famous sweet-seller of Chandni Chowk; Nihari‘s, the kebab-wallah from the steps of the Delhi Jama Masjid. He pointed out how such and such an area still preserved the distinctive idiom or the distinctive cut of kurta pyjamas unique to such and such an area of Delhi.

Even the streets were like a Delhi Dictionary of Biography. While the roads of modern Delhi are named after a dubious collection of twentieth-century politicians - Archbishop Makarios Marg, Tito Marg and so on - the streets of Karachi are named after the great Delhi-wallahs of history: to get to Ahmed Ali we passed through a litany of Delhi sufis and sultans, poets and philosophers, before turning left into Amir Khusroe Drive.

10 January 2024

Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 58-60:

The best impression of the Shahjehanabad of Hamida Sultan — of the city that was destroyed in 1947 - can be found not in photographs or pictures, nor even in the jaded memories of the survivors, but in a slim first novel published to some critical acclaim in 1940.

Although the brilliance of Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali was immediately recognized by both E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, most copies of the book were lost when the warehouse of the Hogarth Press was destroyed during the Blitz. There was no reprint, and the book was overlooked first during the trauma of the Second World War, then in the holocaust of Partition. Only now with the recent publication of a paperback has the book begun to receive the recognition it deserved. For although (until recently) forgotten even in the city it immortalized, Twilight in Delhi is not only a very fine novel, it is also an irreplaceable record of the vanished life and culture of pre-war Delhi. Written only seven years before the catastrophe of 1947, its gloomy tone and pessimistic title were more visionary than Ahmed Ali could ever have imagined.

The novel follows the fortunes of a traditional Muslim family living in a haveli very like Ali Manzil. At the opening of the book a cloud is looming over the house: the patriarch, an old Mughal named Mir Nihal, disapproves of his son courting a low-born girl named Bilqeece. As the love of Ashgar and Bilqeece first grows, blossoms, then decays, the whole dying world of Shahjehanabad is evoked: the pigeon-fliers and the poets, the alchemists and the Sufis, the beggars and the tradesmen.

Beyond Kashmiri Gate the British usurp the mantle of the Mughal emperors, enforcing their authority but rarely deigning to mix with the ordinary Delhi-wallahs. The First World War and the influenza epidemic strike down the young; vultures circle ominously overhead. Yet inside the walls of the havelis and the lattice screens of the zenana, life goes on as it always did. Births follow upon marriages, love affairs decay, middle age gives way to crumbling senility - but all the time the stories and traditions are passed on.


Twilight in Delhi survived Partition to represent the life of Old Delhi to a new readership today, but what, I wondered, had happened to its author? My edition of the book gave no clue; and I scanned the bookshops in vain to find other, later works by the same hand. It was a Delhi publisher friend who told me that Ali was in fact still alive, now an old man living in obscurity in Karachi. This only made it more intriguing: why would anyone who so obviously loved Delhi with a passion opt to leave it? And why had he not gone on to write other even better books? Karachi seemed to hold the key to many of the unanswered questions of 1947. Not only did the city contain some 200,000 refugees who had fled from Delhi to Pakistan in the upheavals of that year, it also contained their most distinguished chronicler. The moment had come for me to visit Karachi for myself.

09 January 2024

Kádár's Early Years

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 359-360:

János Czermanik was born, illegitimate, in the port of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia), the son of a Slovak servant girl. His soldier father abandoned them both when he was born and he was brought up in abject poverty. At fourteen he was apprenticed to a toolmaker and was trained in repairing typewriters. He became a Communist at nineteen, when under the Horthy regime it was a banned organization. He was arrested in 1937 and spent three years in jail. During the war, under the codename Kádár (meaning ‘cooper’ or ‘barrel maker’), he ran the underground Communist Party and the pseudonym stuck. He narrowly avoided death when he was arrested again in 1944 and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, but managed to escape and return to Budapest. A tall, handsome, brown-haired man, he affected a cheerful disposition and an easy manner but was famously reserved. ‘Nobody ever knew what he was thinking,’ a long-time comrade said many years later. He was formally uneducated – he admitted once that he had ‘never read Marx’s Das Kapital and not much of Lenin’. But he had a naturally intuitive intelligence, was deeply perceptive about people and an extremely fast learner. He rose through the ranks as an apparatchik under Rákosi and succeeded Rajk, his great friend, as Interior Minister. It was his behaviour after Rajk was arrested that earned him a reputation for untrustworthiness and cynicism.

Godfather to Rajk’s baby son, Kádár betrayed his friend in a chilling manner, visiting him in a police cell to extract a false confession out of him. He knew Rajk was innocent yet made many speeches accusing him of a series of crimes. He was forced to watch Rajk’s execution, which left a deep impression on him. He told people that he felt sick at the sight and had to vomit – but he also noted, impressed, that the last words Rajk spoke were in praise of Stalin. Inevitably, it was soon his turn to be a victim of the purges. Arrested on bogus charges of treason, he was tortured until he ‘confessed’ and spent three years in jail; he was released during Nagy’s premiership when thousands of prisoners were freed. Soon afterwards he met Nagy and thanked him for his help in getting him released. ‘I hope that when my turn comes you would do the same for me,’ Nagy replied.

Kádár was no Stalinist and at the start of the Revolution he appeared enthusiastic about Nagy and his reforms. He voted within the leadership to press the Russians to withdraw their troops and for Hungary to leave the Warsaw Pact. But when the time came he could withstand neither the temptations nor the threats from Moscow. When he returned at the head of the new government he was loathed as a Judas. He could not leave the Parliament building in safety, so he would not have seen the placards which immediately went up around Budapest abusing him. A famous one that the Soviets destroyed several times but was immediately replaced somewhere else in the city declared: ‘Lost: the confidence of the People. Honest finder is asked to return to János Kádár, at 10,000 tanks Street’. He was so hated that when Khrushchev visited Budapest five months after the Uprising was crushed, even the Soviet leader seemed less unpopular than ‘the collaborator in chief’, as he was called for many years in Budapest. The Soviets did not entirely trust him either. Kádár was under probation by them for some time. Two KGB officers followed him wherever he went, ostensibly for his security, but also to keep an eye on him.

During my postdoc year in Romania in 1983-84, I attended an advanced Romanian language curs de perfecționare with classmates from the U.S., China, and East Germany. My favorite professor assigned us to do oral presentations for our final exams, on topics of our own choosing. My Chinese classmates, who were Romanian language broadcasters for Radio Beijing, had taken a tour of neighboring countries during our winter break, and they were impressed by Hungary's relative prosperity during the 1980s. One of them talked about Kádár's personal modesty and lack of a personality cult. She had experienced Mao's personality cult, and gave her talk under the portrait of Ceaușescu that adorned every Romanian classroom at that time. I had no idea then about Kádár's earlier perfidious rise to power. (My own talk was on the Hawaiian Great Mahele [Rom. Marea împărțire] in that revolutionary year 1848, which didn't turn out so well for commoners.)

08 January 2024

Budapest's Broken Windows Era

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 362-363:

Kádár was the only East European Communist leader who merited an ‘ism’ after his name. After the agony of defeat, the immediate crackdown and brutal reprisals in Budapest, he began a partial thaw. Soviet troops returned to barracks and were no longer visible in the city streets. Within two years their numbers were halved. With the help of loans from Moscow, wages went up by 15 to 20 per cent by the middle of 1957, but times were hard for most people. ‘In Budapest it took three years before the city stopped looking like a war zone – again,’ said Zsindely, who was then working as a research chemist and trying to support two children. ‘The appearance of the city altered: it looked dowdier, greyer.’ The centre of Pest retained its Habsburg-era charm and beauty, even if it was grimier and dirtier, more tawdry. But the suburbs and the outskirts of the city were transformed over the next fifteen years. A series of housing estates to the south and east temporarily lifted the pressures of homelessness but changed the cityscape. Soon inhabitants saw one major drawback in the Soviet-era buildings, commercial and residential: the ‘five-year-plan windows’ which continually kept falling out of the blocks or broke their seals, adding to the inefficiency and ugliness. This was a common problem in large parts of the Soviet bloc and the story of these windows and the tower blocks is a microcosm of the craziness and rigidity of the economic system behind the Iron Curtain. Nationalized glass companies were set a production schedule as part of the larger ‘five-year plan’. The requirement was invariably the number of panes produced. When they were behind the quota – which was often – workers simply reduced the width and size of the glass to make up the numbers to save time. Hence, when the windows were installed they didn’t fit properly. Windows became a huge issue in Budapest living spaces throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Broken windows were frequently a metaphor in Budapest literature at the time for much of what was wrong with life in Communist Hungary.

During the Far Outliers' year in Romania in 1983-84, we were advised not to buy cans or jars of food that had been produced toward the end of any month, because that was when the food factories went into sloppy overdrive to meet their monthly quotas after delayed shipments of produce coming in from the farms. 

07 January 2024

Hinglish and Hobson Jobson

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 73-75:

Perhaps it is language, the spoken word, which is the greatest indication of the distance travelled since 1947.

The English spoken by Indians - Hinglish - has of course followed its own idiosyncratic journey since the guardians of its purity returned home. Like American English, likewise emancipated by Britain’s colonial retreat, it has developed its own grammatical rules, its own syntax and its own vocabulary.

One of the great pleasures of our life in India has always been being woken on the dot of 7.30 every morning by Ladoo bearing ‘bed tea’ and the Times of India. The news is inevitably depressing stuff (’400 Killed in Tamil Train Crash‘, ’150 Garrotted by Assam Separatists’ and so on), yet somehow the jaunty Times of India prose always manages to raise the tone from one of grim tragedy. There may have been a train crash, but at least the Chief Minister has air-dashed to the scene. Ten convented (convent-educated) girls may have been gang-raped in the Punjab, but thousands of students have staged a bandh (strike) and a dharna (protest) against such eve-teasing (much nicer than the bland Americanese ‘sexual harassment’). And so what if the protesters were then lathi (truncheon) charged by police jawans (constables)? In the Times of India such miscreants are always charge-sheeted in the end.


Perhaps the most striking testament to the sea-change in Indian English in the forty years since Independence lies not in what has survived - and been strangely, wonderfully mutated - but in what has died and completely disappeared. The best guide to such linguistic dodos is Hobson Jobson: A Glossary of Anglo-Indian Colloquial Words and Phrases, originally published by John Murray in 1903. The book was written as a guide to those words which had passed from Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian and Arabic into English, and the list is certainly extraordinary: every time you wear pyjamas or a cummerbund; if ever you sit on the veranda of your bungalow reading the pundits in the newspapers or eat a stick of candy; indeed even if you are haunted by ghouls or have your cash stolen by thugs - then you are using a branch of English that could never have developed but for the trading and colonizing activities of the East India Company.

Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hobson Jobson is how many of its words and phrases are stone cold dead, now utterly incomprehensible to a modern reader. In 1903 an Englishman could praise a cheroot as ‘being the real cheese’ (from the Hindi chiz, meaning thing) or claim his horse was the ’best goont in Tibet’ (from the Hindi gunth, meaning a pony); and whether he was in the middle of some shikar (sport) relaxing with his friends in their chummery (bachelor quarters) or whoring with his rum-johny (mistress, from the Hindi ramjani, a dancing girl) he might reasonably expect to be understood.

Half of Hobson Jobson is filled with these dead phrases: linguistic relics of a world so distant and strange that it is difficult to believe that these words were still current in our own century. Yet clearly, in 1903, if a Jack (sepoy) did anything wrong he could expect to receive some pretty foul galee (abuse); if he were unlucky his chopper (thatched hut) might fall down in the mangoes (April showers); and if he forgot his goglet (water bottle) on parade he might well have been thrown out of the regiment for good.

To us, the vocabulary of the Raj now seems absurd, distant and comical.... Yet many who actually spoke this language [were] still alive in England [in 2003]. For them, the world of Hobson Jobson is less linguistic archaeology than the stuff of fraying memory.

06 January 2024

Decline of Delhi's Urdu Elite

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 50-51:

Just as Partition resulted in prosperity and growth for the new Delhi, it led to impoverishment and stagnation for the old. The fabulous city which hypnotized the world travellers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the home of the great poets Mir, Zauq and Ghalib; the city of nautch girls and courtesans; the seat of the Emperor, the Shadow of God, the Refuge of the World, became a ghetto, a poor relation embarrassingly tacked on to the metropolis to its south. Since 1947 the Old City has survived only by becoming one enormous storehouse for North India’s wholesale goods; one by one the old palaces and mansions have been converted into godowns (warehouses) and stores. It has become more remarkable for its junk markets and car parts bazaars than for any fraying beauty or last lingering hints of sophistication. The crafts and skills developed over the centuries for the tastes of the old Urdu-speaking Delhi elite either adjusted to the less sophisticated Punjabi market, or simply died out.

Near the Ajmeri Gate lies the old Cobblers’ Bazaar. Most of the Muslim shoemakers who worked here fled to Karachi in 1947, and today the Punjabis who replaced them sell mostly locks and chains and hardware. But a few of the old shopkeepers remain, and among them is the shop of Shamim and Ali Akbar Khan. Despite the position of their workshop, the father of Shamim and Ali was no cobbler; he was one of the most famous calligraphers in Delhi. Shamim continues his father’s trade and still lives by producing beautifully inscribed title deeds, wills and marriage documents.

I met Shamim in a chai shop outside the Ajmeri Gate mosque. He was a tall and elegant man in his early fifties, dressed in an immaculate sherwani frock coat and a tall lambskin cap. He had high cheekbones, fair skin, and narrow, almond-shaped eyes that hinted at a Central Asian ancestry. On his chin he sported a neat goatee beard. He sat down beside me at a table in the rear of the shop and over a glass of masala tea we began to talk.

‘My forebears were writers at the Mughal court,’ said Shamim. ‘And before that we were calligraphers in Samarkand. My family have always been in this business.’

‘And you illuminate your documents in exactly the way your father taught you?’

‘My father was a very accomplished man. He knew the shikastah [cursive] script as well as the nastaliq; he could write both Persian and Urdu. I learned only the nastaliq. Slowly the skills are dying. Today there are only two other calligraphers in Delhi and they are of inferior quality.’

Shamim called the chai-boy over and asked for the bill. When it finally came he totted it up, checking all the figures in a slightly pedantic manner.

‘Today most of the work is in Hindi,’ he said. ‘Because of this there is little demand for our skills.’

‘Can you not learn the Hindi script?’ I asked.

‘I know it. But with the change from Urdu has come a loss of prestige. Earlier it was a highly respected job that few people were qualified to perform: you had to be familiar with Islamic law, had to know the old Delhi customs, and most of all you had to be a talented calligrapher. Now I am just a clerk; most of the work is done quickly on typewriters.’

He downed the rest of the tea in a single swallow and swirled the dregs around in his glass: ‘It is because of the newcomers. They have a very different culture; they have no interest in fine calligraphy.’

05 January 2024

Budapest Inflation, 1945

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 317-318:

The Hungarian national budget over the next eighteen months set aside as reparations five times more than was allotted for post-war reconstruction for Budapest. UN officials estimated three years after the war that total losses, calculating reparations, occupation costs and looting, amounted to 40 per cent of national income.

The currency collapsed – as it did in many places immediately after the war. Yet Hungary beat all records in terms of inflation. In July 1945 one US dollar was worth 1,320 pengős; by 1 November that year the exchange rate was one US dollar to 296,000. By spring 1946 hyperinflation took the rate to 4.6 quadrillion to the dollar (that is an almost unimaginable 15 noughts, 158,000 per cent a day). Most people in Budapest refused to be paid in money. As buildings were being repaired throughout the city, the walls in many rooms were decorated with large banknotes in fantastical denominations. In his marvellous book My Happy Days in Hell, György Faludy described the effect this had on daily life. A year after the war ended his publisher brought out a new edition of one of his books. He was paid 300 million pengős (which before the war would have been worth something like US$60 billion). When he collected his money, in cash, knowing it would have devalued by the time he had walked through Budapest, he ran to the central market a few blocks away. He spent the entire amount, he said, ‘on one chicken, a litre of olive oil and a handful of vegetables’. On 5 July a 100-quintillion-pengő note was issued – that’s twenty noughts; when an elderly gentleman in Budapest received one as wages he used it as part of the lining of his hat.

The currency was stabilized, largely with the help of the Americans. In April 1944, a fortnight after the German occupation, the Nazis had taken US$40 million ($570 million at 2022 values) in gold from various Hungarian banks. It fell into US hands at the end of the war and the Americans returned it a year later. Had the gold remained in Hungary at the moment of liberation, it is certain it would have been looted by the Red Army.

04 January 2024

Fall of Budapest, 1945

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 309, 315-316:

We have had three great tragedies in our country: the Tatar invasion in the thirteenth century, the Turkish occupation lasting 150 years – and the Soviet liberation. György Faludy (1910–2006)


If women were scared of rape, the fear among men was to be picked up off the streets and used as slave labour by the Soviets for public works like clearing rubble, shoring up buildings and repairing the city’s bridges. General Malinovsky reported back to Moscow that 110,000 men had been taken as ‘prisoners’ in this way. According to one well-informed journalist, ‘Count Géza Teleki [who would later himself become briefly Minister for Public Works] and a former Mayor of Budapest were seized without any warning and found two days later when an officer to whom they could talk finally released them. Prince Pál Esterházy was discovered in a cemetery burying dead horses.’ Around half of these detainees were returned home within weeks of the end of the siege. But the rest, including men from all walks of life and essential workers like firefighters, ambulance drivers, train and bus drivers – people who would be needed to rebuild Hungary – were transported east to the Soviet Union for forced labour on building projects in the Urals and Siberia. Some returned to Hungary decades later, but most never did – one of the Soviet war crimes rarely mentioned amid all the other horrors of the Second World War. Forty thousand of these men – abducted from their homes and from the streets – were corralled into a concentration camp near Gödöllő, 30 kilometres north-east of Budapest, in appalling conditions before being taken to the USSR.


Budapest in the spring of 1945 ‘was nothing short of hell on earth’, said the high-ranking prelate Bishop József Grősz at the end of the year. ‘Thousands of women from girls of twelve to women in the ninth month of pregnancy raped; men deported for slave labour. Almost every home looted; the city and its churches in ruins; the restaurants and stores empty, dead horses in the streets along with unburied bodies; in the cellars people half-demented with hunger, cutting pieces of flesh from animals dead for days.

03 January 2024

Hungary's First Anti-Jewish Laws

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 272-273:

Horthy introduced anti-Jewish laws in Hungary while Hitler was still speaking to tiny groups of disaffected Germans in Munich beer halls. The first legislation specifically to target Hungarian Jews for discrimination was passed on 22 September 1920, barely six months after the admiral was elected regent. It was the Numerus Clausus Act, which restricted the number of Jews admitted to universities to 7 per cent of the total population, effectively ending the legal equality for Hungarian Jews that had been established under the Ausgleich in 1867. This had a profound effect in Budapest, where more than a quarter of the inhabitants at the end of the First World War were Jews – and on the universities. Many young people who could afford to leave went to study abroad, never to return. So did some of the ablest professors – a drain of talent that was never replaced. Horthy was not interested when a few academics, even among his own supporters, objected. ‘Concerning the Jewish question, for all my life, I have been an anti-Semite,’ he wrote to a friend, the future Prime Minister Pál Teleki. ‘I have never made any contact with Jews. I have found it intolerable that here, in Hungary, every single factory, bank, asset, shop, theatre, newspaper, trade, etc., is in Jewish hands.’

The passage of the law was accompanied by a wave of pogroms throughout Hungary. In Budapest a dozen Jews were killed and more than 150 injured during a vicious riot by the far-Right Turul organization, led by the highly ambitious ultra-nationalist politician Gyula Gömbös, who a decade later would become Prime Minister.

In 1925 the League of Nations threatened to impose sanctions and other retaliatory measures against Hungary unless it removed anti-Semitic legislation. Budapest’s Jews begged them not to. The National Jewish Congress of Hungary asked the League not to interfere, for fear of a further backlash against Jews.

02 January 2024

A City of Partition Refugees

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 41-44:

I had been living in Delhi for some months before I began to realize quite how many of the people I met every day were Partition refugees. Even the most well-established Delhi figures - newspaper editors, successful businessmen, powerful politicians - had tales to tell of childhoods broken in two, of long journeys on foot over the Punjab plains, of houses left behind, of sisters kidnapped or raped: the ghastly but familiar litany of Partition horrors.

The Puris’ story was fairly typical. Before Partition they had a large town house in Lahore. When the riots came they packed a couple of suitcases, bought their bullock cart and headed off towards Delhi. Their possessions they left locked up in the haveli, guarded by Muslim servants. Like the Palestinians a year later, they expected to come back within a few months when peace had been restored. Like the Palestinians, they never returned.

On arrival in Delhi they found a gutted house in Subzi Mandi, the vegetable bazaar of the Old City. It had belonged to a Muslim family that had fled weeks before. The Puris simply installed a new door and moved in. There were still killings, and occasionally stray bullets ricocheted around the bazaar, but gradually the Puris began to find their feet.

‘We acquired slowly by slowly,’ Mrs Puri remembers. ‘My husband started a business making and selling small houses. I knitted woollens. At first it was very hard.’

After a year of carrying water in leaky buckets, the house was connected to the water mains; later the Puris got electricity installed. By 1949 they had a fan; by 1956 a fridge. In the late 1960s the Puris moved to a smart new house in South Extension. They had arrived.

We heard the same story repeated over and over again. Even the most innocuous of our neighbours, we discovered, had extraordinary tales of 1947: chartered accountants could tell tales of single-handedly fighting off baying mobs; men from grey government ministries would emerge as the heroes of bloody street battles. Everything these people now possessed was built up by their own hard labour over the last few years.


The violence totally gutted many of the poorer parts of Delhi, but even the very richest districts were affected. While shoppers looked on, Hindu mobs looted the smart Muslim tailors and boutiques in Connaught Place; passers-by then stepped over the murdered shopkeepers and helped themselves to the unguarded stocks of lipstick, handbags and bottles of face cream. In Lodhi Colony, Sikh bands burst into the white Lutyens bungalows belonging to senior Muslim civil servants and slaughtered anyone they found at home.

In some areas of the Old City, particularly around Turkman Gate and the Jama Masjid, the Muslims armed themselves with mortars and heavy machine guns. From their strongpoints in the narrow alleyways they defied not only the rioters but also the Indian Army. Many of the Muslim families who remain in Delhi today survived by barricading themselves into these heavily defended warrens.


The more I read, the more it became clear that the events of 1947 were the key to understanding modern Delhi. The reports highlighted the city’s central paradox: that Delhi, one of the oldest towns in the world, was inhabited by a population most of whose roots in the ancient city soil stretched back only forty years. This explained why Delhi, the grandest of grand old aristocratic dowagers, tended to behave today like a nouveau-riche heiress: all show and vulgarity and conspicuous consumption. It was a style most unbecoming for a lady of her age and lineage; moreover it jarred with everything one knew about her sophistication and culture.

01 January 2024

Delhi's Extreme Mood-Swings

From City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 35-38:

Delhi had many failings, but I had never felt it was a violent city. In all the time I had spent in the dark mohallas (quarters) of the old walled city I had never once felt threatened. There were no areas that I felt uneasy to visit after sunset. Instead I had always found Delhi-wallahs, particularly the poor, remarkable for their gentleness and elaborate courtesy. Wherever we went, complete strangers would invite Olivia and me to sit and talk and share a glass of tea with them. To one brought up on a diet of starchy English reserve this habitual kindness of the Delhi-wallah was as touching as it was strange.

Yet as Balvinder and Sandhu could witness, when provoked the inhabitants of this mild town could rise up and commit acts of extreme brutality. Men would avert their eyes as next door neighbours were burned alive or disembowelled. The same people who would invite you to share their last plate of food could, with equal spontaneity, lose control and run amok. Then, with equal ease they could return to their bazaars and shops, factories and offices and carry on as if nothing had happened. It was difficult to understand.

Moreover, despite Delhi’s historic reputation as the most cultured town in India, the city’s history was punctuated with many such flashes of terrible, orgiastic violence. It was not just invaders who put the people of Delhi to the sword. During the Middle Ages and throughout the long Mughal twilight the town was continually rent with bloody riots, even small civil wars. Out of the first twelve Sultans, only two died peacefully in their beds; the rest were killed, usually in a horrible manner and almost always by their courtiers or subjects. Invaders like Timur the Lame were able to storm the high walls of the city only because the inhabitants were already busy cutting each others’ throats. The death toll from bazaar disputes such as the eighteenth-century Shoe Sellers’ Riot could run into tens of thousands.

The last great conflagration was Partition. In the dying days of the British Raj, when the subcontinent was split into Muslim-only Pakistan and Hindu-majority India, twelve million people were made refugees. Hordes of non-Muslims - Sikhs and Hindus - fled their ancestral villages in Pakistan; India’s displaced Muslims struck out in the opposite direction. It was the greatest migration the modern world had ever seen. Yet again Delhi was consigned to the flames. Following some of the worst rioting in its history, nearly half of its ancient Muslim population - the descendants of the people who had erected the Qutab Minar and lined the streets to cheer the Great Mogul - packed their bags and headed off to a new country. Their place was taken by refugees from the Western Punjab, among them Mr and Mrs Puri and Punjab Singh. Delhi was transformed from a small administrative capital of 900,000 people to a Punjabi-speaking metropolis half the size of London.

Of the two peoples who had ruled Delhi during the previous thousand years, the British disappeared completely while the Indian Muslims were reduced to an impoverished minority. In the space of a few months, the face of the city was probably changed more radically than at any other time since the Muslims first came to India, a millennium before.