chapter attempts to deal with writers and literature in time of
war-more specifically, Hungarian writers in the period of the Great
War and World War II. From our 21st century perspective, it is increasingly
obvious that the wars of the previous century were basically a single
world war stretching across the "short century", from
1914 to 1990. Yet the personalities named in this chapter belong
to two, maybe three, consecutive generations, and the ideological
environment that surrounds them, and determines them to some extent,
cannot be reduced to a single "ism" (socialism, fascism,
totalitarianism, liberalism, etc.).
must be conceded from the outset that writers, no more than other
intellectuals, have the power to change the course of politics,
let alone the course of military events. This applies even to
Hungary, notwithstanding that, as the political writer Imre Kovacs
observed: "Hungarian literature is perhaps the most political
literature in the world." Writers, especially those with
insight and intuition--i.e. the authors of great works--have the
ability to reflect the society in which they live, even when the
subject of their writing is the past rather than the contemporary
scene; indeed, great writers often turn out to be more accurate
social historians than the notoriously unimaginative members of
the historical profession. In other words, literature is seldom
the hammer, but quite often an accurate mirror.
Writers in the Great War
book is only a book if it is read, argues Nicole Robine. It is
fair to assume that an increase in the number of people able to
read resulted in the reading of more books and in a surge in publishing.
By 1910 some 69 percent of the population of Hungary who had reached
school age was able to read (as opposed to 44.5 percent at the
time of the "Compromise" or Ausgleich of 1867). About
250,000 persons, out of a population of 14 million, had completed
eight years of schooling or more, albeit they were disproportionately
members of the Hungarian-speaking group. Between 1876 and 1913
the number of books printed annually increased by about one hundred
percent. The number of copies of newspapers sold increased eight-
or ten-fold within the same period, the total daily sales of papers
reaching almost 900,000. In 1910 there were altogether 1,603 serials
(newspapers and periodicals) published in Hungary, twelve of which
were officially described as "literary" (and six based
in Budapest). That same year 39 dailies were printed in Budapest,
more than in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, or any other European capital.
While 199 Hungarian language periodicals ceased publication in
1910, another 221 got launched. The spread of newspaper consumption
is not merely an indication of literacy or even of an interest
in current affairs; it is relevant as regards literature and the
attitude of writers, since most, great and small, had earned their
living, at one time or another, as journalists.
literacy was on the rise, and progress in the consumption of printed
products far exceeded the rise in literacy; but certain distinctions
are in order. The literary culture we are discussing was centralized
in the capital Budapest, and extremely "ethnocentralized."
Literary products catering to the Slovak-, Romanian-, Serbian
or Croatian-speaking and reading public were not on the rise,
to the contrary. The media in Hungary, progressive or not, deliberately
or unconsciously, contributed to the policy of homogeneization
and Hungarian dominance.
seems reasonable to assume that the rise in literacy also contributed
to the increase in the dissemination of "high-brow"
literature, but it may be equally safe to argue that the popularity
of certain writers resulted in a rise in literacy; in other words,
certain writers taught the public the habit of reading. For instance,
the increase in the number of readers in England in mid-nineteenth
century is reflected in, or perhaps the result of, the works of
Charles Dickens, more than anyone else. In Hungary it was the
ultraromantic novels of the late 19th century novelists Mor Jokai,
Geza Gardonyi and a few others that converted many literate persons
into readers of literary works.
increase in the number of readers was in correlation to the quality
of literature or quantity of publications; eventually, it was
also a function of the general intellectual fermentation, a proliferation
of styles and theories, a more favorable reception accorded to
currents flowing from abroad. A small country, Hungary's economy
has to rely on imports; by analogy, if for no other reason, it
may be said that her intellectual life is also particularly susceptible
to influences from the outside. In 1912, to take the last year
of general peace, 106 of a total of 419 literary works published
all the currents of style flowing onto the Hungarian cultural
scene, more or less simultaneously and in combination, symbolism
was the most relevant. If we must pick a date, 1906 would be the
year of its arrival--the year of Endre Ady's third volume of poetry,
when he found his personal style. Idiosyncratic as it may have
been, this style seemed closer to French symbolism than to any
other imported trend. The title of Ady's volume was Uj versek
[New poems] (identical to the Austrian Rainer Maria Rilke's Neueu
Gedichte, published the same year). Significantly, Andre Karatson's
voluminous treatise, entitled Le symbolisme en Hongrie, is devoted
mainly to Ady and other writers grouped around the periodical
was the symbolist poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud and
others that was referred to as "modern" or "contemporary"
by the Hungarian critics and poets around the periodical Nyugat,
launched in 1908, even though all three French poets named were
dead by then. The fact that the works of these dead poets did
not go unnoticed and unchallenged, only enhanced their reputation.
"To hell with them!" wrote the soon to be famous Hungarian
poet, Dezso Kosztolanyi. "They spoil our sense of esthetics
and, in addition to dirty things, they favor monsters."
regards prose, it was naturalism that found a relatively fertile
ground in Hungary after the turn of the century. Emile Zola, of
course, was the model: he proved more popular, it seems, in Budapest
than in Paris, especially after 1897 and 1905, as a result of
his interventions in the "Affaire." For we must bear
in mind that one quarter of the population of Budapest was Jewish,
by background if not by religion. And, as regards the field of
journalism, the editors of newspapers, the owners of publishing
houses and, indeed, those managing "culture" in general,
the figure is closer to fifty percent.
France was probably the foreign author most often mentioned on
the pages of the review Nyugat. The first volume of the journal
carried an essay on France by the socialist Pal Keri: France is
"the most intelligent man in Europe today," argued Keri.
Gyula Juhasz, another poet soon to distinguish himself, considered
France "the greatest intellectual of the age." France
was the subject of eleven more articles and reviews in the first
ten volumes of the journal (1908 to 1918), in spite of his anarchist
and socialist (or Communist) reputation, and in spite of the fact
that by 1914 Hungary was at war with France (the country!). Indeed,
France's perception reflects the importance Hungarian writers
ascribe to themselves: "It is the writers, indeed, who lead
the people, inasmuch as they form and define the spirit of every
nation," he wrote at one time.
should be noted, however, that the writers of the Nyugat movement
were more progressive than typical. A broader poll of writers--that
is of writers most of whom were not members of the Nyugat movement--revealed
that, although they listed France ahead of Zola, Balzac and Baudelaire,
their favorite foreign authors were Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, Heine
addition to symbolism and naturalism, there was art nouveau, or
Sezession as its Hungarian and Austrian versions were called.
Although the term designated primarily visual, including decorative
and industrial, arts, it did not prevent the poet and critic Aladar
Komlos from referring to Ady as the foremost poet of art nouveau,
even by comparative international standards. It is not surprising,
then, that art nouveau was controversial, criticized even in the
Hungarian Parliament as foreign, decadent and un-Hungarian.
symbolism, naturalism and other Western isms went challenged or
unchallenged, it is clear that Nyugat [Occident], the title of
the new literary journal and the name of the new literary movement
with which it was identified, refers primarily to France rather
than to Germany. My own father, one of the founders of the journal,
was fluent in German and had only a reading knowledge of French;
yet his personal library, and the journal associated with his
name, had an overwhelmingly French orientation. Nor was this orientation
reversed once the war broke out. Hence the most progressive writers,
whether the term denotes literary innovation or political thought,
became subversive, part of a current of resistance, even when
they did not produce explicitly or obviously anti-war works. Indeed,
many were to pay a price, becoming victims of economic discrimination,
dismissal from jobs, or even arrest.
was, indeed, a short step from the charge of "French influence"
leveled against many progressive writers, to accusations of lack
of patriotism. Objectively Ady, for one (and the composer and
ethno-musician Bela Bartok, for another), was a patriot in the
truest sense of the word. Unlike the Hungarian chauvinists, he
harbored no contempt for the national "minorities" who
lived on Hungarian land. His vision of the nation was unobstructed
by personal or class considerations, except his contempt for the
I flee from my country in a train concealed/for my country is
the home of hounds today, not mine/ and should a single one of
my disciples remain behind, the blessed fellow!/ I will have even
my corpse removed from there!
conservative critics could not forgive Ady for his attacks on
the establishment, particularly since his family background was
"pure" Hungarian, and gentry at that. He could not be
dismissed as yet another "cosmopolitan" Jew, or as a
Slav. Ady could easily have become the poet laureate, the hallowed
poet of the establishment, of the ancien regime, had he been so
If the Hungarian admirers of Western literatures had been mere
imitators, the battle for modernization in Hungary would have
been lost from the start. The great Hungarian poets and novelists
of the beginning of the 20th century imitated no one. "We
were rebels and revolutionaries," wrote Mihaly Babits, often
described as a great Catholic poet, "even when, especially
when, we held onto the roots of Hungarian traditions most tenaciously..."
Indeed, the three most outstanding figures of Hungarian literature--Endre
Ady, Mihaly Babits, and the novelist/short story writer Moricz
Zsigmond--were Hungarians without a trace of Jewish ancestry.
While Ady was a regular contributor to Socialist (i.e. Social
Democratic) newspapers, Babits and Moricz played a modest role
in the Commune (also known as the Republic of Councils) which
was to take hold of Hungary in the aftermath of the debacle in
World War I.
we give the term literati a broader definition, to include all
"women and men of letters" as opposed to the just creative
writers, we must include the historians, sociologists and other
social scientists gathered around the review Huszadik szazad [Twentieth
century], the "first eye-opener", as Lajos Hatvany,
writer and Maecenas, called it. As the editor-in-chief Oszkar
Jaszi wrote about his own journal, and about Hungarian culture
in general: "All our thoughts turned toward the West....
It is from that direction that we have received , over a thousand
years, all our objectives, all our principles, all our aspirations."
This journal may be described as more British-oriented, because
of its devotion to the ideas of Herbert Spencer and other Social
Darwinists. Through the volumes of this journal we meet with authors
who were to achieve international distinction in one field or
another: Gyorgy Lukacs in philosophy, particularly Marxist philosophy,
Sandor Ferenczi, the disciple and companion of Freud, Jeno Varga,
who was to become a world-renowned economist in exile in the Soviet
Union, Ervin Szabo, another Marxist theoretician, Karoly and Mihaly
Polanyi, sociologists and anthropologists, Karoly Mannheim, the
sociologist of knowledge and Oszkar Jaszi, the sociologist and
historian, the mastermind--along with Count Mihaly Karolyi--of
the "Chrysanthemum Revolution" following World War I
and preceding the Commune. Jaszi, for one, was to undermine the
policy of Hungarian (which is a translation of Magyar, the Hungarian
term to describe themselves), hegemony within the Austro-Hungarian
monarchy. Both the Nyugat and the Huszadik Szazad may be viewed
as products of the same fertile intellectual climate that produced
some degree of modernization in Hungary; or, stated more accurately,
the intellectual climate that led to resistance to the values
of the still dominant feudal or semi-feudal society of privilege.
the war broke out, there was no united front of the writers or
intellectuals. In fact, during the first few weeks and even months
therew as no trace of disapproval, of even scepticism or pacificsm,
except perhaps on the paes of theSocial Democratic daily Nepszava.
On the contrary; most writers, including many among the Nyugsat
movement, expressed their approval of military action, even beyond
the call of "patriotic" duty. Bela Balazs, the poet
who was to acquire fame abroad for his pioneer work on the theory
of the film, and who was to turn Communist, wrote, in his diary
: "There is war.... I volunteered, but was refused. For two
days I was completely beside myself. I, the athlete, who had avoided
the draft [in 1909] only by cheating, who had always sung the
praises of war ...." Ignotus, the editor-in-chief of Nyugat,
found logical arguments to justify war: "There can be no
doubt that the Hungarians need the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy,
hence they also need the present war ..." Aladar Schopflin
and Dezso Kosztolanyi wrote with envy about their younger brother
who had gone to war.
a year or two, however, their attitudes were to change. Already
in late 1914 the Nyugat published the translation of a poem by
Edmond Rostand, deploring the destruction of the cathedral of
Rheims by the invading German "hordes"--albeit the editors
felt compelled to add a footnote to the effect that the poem was
not particularly good! Indeed, the journal came under fire from
the clerical and reactionary press for having shed tears--""crocodile
tears"--over the destruction of a French cathedral.
1915 antiwar items appeared with increasing frequency in the progressive
press. Among the many items the fine story-teller, Zoltan Ambrus,
took Thomas Mann to task for his blatantly chauvinist statement
in a German magazine: "en chauvinisme" wrote Ambrus
in French, "tous les peuples se valent."
item by item enumeration of anti-war publications is hardly necessary,
but Endre Ady deserves special mention. On June 28, 1914, the
day the shots were fired in Sarajevo, Ady, a candidate of the
Radical Party campaigning in the provinces, told his constituents
of a vision: "in this war [there was no war as yet] the Hungarian
nation will perish whether the Entente wins or loses. Hungary
will be divided, ... reaction will take over..." The poet
and novelist Margit Kaffka, feminist and pacifist, would have
deserved the Nobel prize for peace.
looming of the Great War had the effect of hardening the position
of the establishment; censorship became institutionalized under
a press law promulgated in 1912, before the war broke out. The
task of executing the law was assigned to an agency with the awkward
name of Press Committee of the Armed Forces Inspection Committee.
At first, the intervention of the censors was evident because
the newspapers or journals appeared with pages or segments of
pages left blank, sometimes in the middle of an article; eventually
the editors were ordered to avoid that practice, and leave no
trace of the intervention.
Babits, the pacifist (a label he rejected) never stopped denouncing
the war. The publication of his poem, titled "Fortissimo",
resulted in the confiscation of the entire March 1917 issue of
the Nyugat. According to the order of the district police chief,
dated March 1, 1917, the most objectionable portion of the poem
was an attack against religion, "particularly where he writes
that if the prayer and cries addressed to God should remain without
effect, we humans still remember how to curse; we tear and beat
the deaf God with our curses--God, like the landlord snoring inside
his burning house." The date of publication is itself significant,
because it indicates how long after the beginning of the war it
took even the most courageous writer to speak out so outspokenly,
and how long it took the authorities to clamp down on him heavy-handed.
growing circulation figures of the most progressive periodicals
and the acceptance of the most progressive writers are a reflection
of anti-war attitudes. In 1918 the conservative literary society
which had usurped the name "Petofi" (Sandor Petofi,
the most famous poet, patriot and revolutionary from the war of
liberation of 1848-49) felt the time had come to expand its membership
by inviting some of the progressive writers to join. The latter,
however, preferred to form their own body, the Vorosmarty Academy,
named after another progressive poet of the mid-19th century.
ranks of the opposition had definitely widened. "Even from
the conservative side the critics seem to have surrendered to
Ady," noted a critic in the radical review Ma (Today), the
review often associated with the leftist artist and poet Lajos
Kassak. The revolution in Russia made revolution seem possible
in Hungary. Indeed, the Chrysanthemum Revolution of October 1918
corresponded, by and large, to the "bourgeois" phase;
but even the "proletarian" revolution of March 1919
found considerable support among progressive intellectuals.
World War Continued
fall of the Hungarian Commune in 1919 was followed by weeks of
chaos, including a Romanian occupation, soon succeeded by a conservative
regime under the anti-Communist Regent Miklos Horthy, reigning
in the name of a non-existent king. The peacemakers in Paris were
finally able to deal with Hungary. In June 1920 the Hungarian
delegation--sequestered in Neuilly, then outside of Paris, for
several months, to deny it access to French public opinion--signed
the treaty in somber mood. The treaty punished Hungary militarily,
economically, but most of all territorially, depriving the Kingdom
of Hungary of 70% of its land and 60 % of its population, including
28% of all Hungarian-speakers.
that day, revision of the Treaty of Trianon became an obsession
with Hungarian governments and the public. Of course, this obsession,
and the political/diplomatic energies expended in trying to have
the treaty revised and the injustice rectified, also served to
camouflage the increasing misery, and the increasing disparities
between the upper-classes and the masses.
1933, it appeared to the regime that help could only come from
Fascist Italy; then Hitler and National Socialist Germany courted
the Hungarian leaders, and often found their feelings reciprocated.
By the time of the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, the conservative
Hungarian politicians, and even the Regent, became aware of the
threat of Nazi expansion. It was too late; the influence of the
extreme-right Arrow-Cross Party (which also referred to itself
as the Hungarist movement) was too widespread and the arrest of
its leader did little to curtail the subversion, while the German
minority group in the country sometimes functioned as a fifth
the Hungarian government refused to participate in the invasion
of Poland, hesitated about the military operation against Yugoslavia
and, while it was "tricked" into declaring war against
the Soviet Union only a few days after the launching of Operation
Barbarossa, it tried to minimize its contribution, especially
after the rout of the 2nd Hungarian Army along the Don river (November-December
1942). At the same time, the government sent secret missions and
"feelers" to neutral countries in repeated attempts
to negotiate a separate peace with the Western Allies (but not
with the Soviet Union). The only concrete outcome of these half-hearted
moves was to arouse the suspicion of the Hitler regime and provoke
a German invasion on March 19, 1944.
man be more human/ And the Hungarian be more Hungarian/ so the
country not become a German colony..." wrote the poet Attila
Jozsef, a few years before his suicide and the war. He did not
live long enough to see his wish denied. Neither he, nor all the
Hungarian poets combined had the power to avert subjugation. If
anything, the outstanding writers of the period remained silent
on the subject.
scope allotted to this chapter is both too tight and too generous
to explain why progressive thinkers and politicians in Hungary
failed to fight effectively for the country's independence. Too
generous, if we must appraise resistance by the number of acts
of sabotage, of occupation troops disarmed, or tanks disabled.
There were a few acts of resistance by Hungarian patriots, including
symbolic gestures, such as detonating explosives at the foot of
the statue of Gyula Gombos, the first prime-minister to have initiated
a pro-Nazi foreign policy.
the other hand, if we measure resistance by the number of those
who have suffered and were killed, or by the depth of pain, this
essay would require far more time and space.
most of Europe, the term resistance implied resistance against
Nazi occupation. In Hungary, however, there was no German occupation
before March 1944. Hence one may speak of resistance on the part
of the established regime itself. We may plausibly argue that
the honor of being the first Hungarian casualty in the struggle
for independence belongs to Prime Minister Pal Teleki, a noted
geographer, who committed suicide as German tanks were rumbling
across Hungarian territory on their way to attack Yugoslavia.
Minister Miklos Kallay, in charge from March 1942 to March 1944,
was a subsequent victim of the same struggle (deported to the
concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria). The Kallay regime
had done nothing explicit or dramatic against German interests.
Its caution, designed to forestall a German occupation, proved
futile: official resistance under Kallay's regime was not cautious
enough to delay the German invasion until the arrival of an Allied
rescue force, nor was it clear-cut enough to earn the country
good points in the eyes of the Allies.
course of action was left open to progressive intellectuals in
the period 1941 to 1944? They might have joined the communist
underground; that underground, however, was hard to find, practically
wiped out of existence or in exile. Another option was to support
the timid, wavering policies of the regime, which most intellectuals
did, while remaining unaware of what those policies actually were!
were, however, further alternatives. There was a so-called March
Front (from the revolution of March 15, 1848) of "populist"
writers. The members of this Front assembled in 1937, to speak
out against the neglect and exploitation of the peasant and the
pervasive misery of Hungary's villages. They elaborated a program
which included demands for individual freedom, universal suffrage,
a minimum wage, a forty-hour work-week and, most significant,
the expropriation of the large estates. Among its members or sympathizers
we find Peter Veres, Gyula Illyes, Istvan Bibo, and Laszlo Nemeth,
each of whom had produced novels, tracts and monographs revealing
the plight of the peasant; the best known among these being Illyes's
autobiographical account of life in the hamlets, A pusztak nepe,
eventually translated into most Western languages.
because the liberal and progressive intellectuals, including the
writers, did not fully understood the dilemma the regime was facing,
they did little or nothing to undermine the efforts of the government;
their voices remained muffled even during the adoption of a series
of anti-Jewish measures (officially, the Jewish Acts). As Peter
Veres noted, "the leaders of the authoritarian and anti-Semitic
movements in all countries were intellectuals." Progressive
as he was, Veres himself attempted to make a distinction between
"anti-Semite"--a label he rejected--and fajvedo (rassenschutzlerich
in German), that is one who defends his "race"--an attitude
to which he ascribed positive value. Hence the opposition of the
more prominent writers remained largely invisible, compromised,
discounted by historians.
entry into the war in June 1941 did not elicit a united stand
from these writers. The members of the Front, never a close-knit
organization, did not take a public stand against Hitlerism or
even against the local Arrow-Cross, although some did write of
the "traditions" of Hungarian humanism, the need to
preserve the country's independence and freedom of action. They
also denounced the "semi-feudal" regime, the regime
which seemed to have survived in Hungary longer than elsewhere
in Europe. It is not surprising that some of them were persecuted
alongside writers who were more explicitly Socialist. Imre Kovacs,
for instance, was imprisoned in 1940 and charged with "lack
of respect for the Hungarian nation, and agitation against the
class of landowners."
organs of the progressive writers were literary periodicals such
as the Magyar Csillag [Hungarian Star], launched in late summer
of September 1941, under the editorship of Illyes and Aladar Schopflin.
The review was bold enough to publish poetry by Jews or crypto-Communists,
such as Miklos Radnoti, or by the Lajos Kassak, who had acquired
his fame as blue-collar turned avant-garde artist and revolutionary
at the end of World War I. The periodical occasionally reviewed
works published in Allied countries, including books that described
the Soviet Union in a favorable light. Unlike its predecessor,
the Nyugat, however, this review did not challenge the censors,
did not decry the war, did not discuss Hungary's fateful predicament,
and published no passionately antiwar poems; yet there was no
literary journal further to the to the left.
March Front and other progressive writers collaborated with groups
of university students, especially those of peasant background,
in evoking the heroic past and commemorating the heroes of the
Hungarian revolution of 1848-49. Some organized a Historical Memorial
Committee, a Communist "front," but certainly a front
for resistance in general. The specific task the Committee set
for itself was to lay wreaths at the monuments dedicated to Lajos
Batthyany, Lajos Kossuth and Mihaly Tancsics, all of whom were
leaders of movement for independence from the Austro-Germans in
the 1840s, whereas Tancsics was also the most eminent representative
of the workers and vanguard of that revolutionary period. Similar
demonstrations took place each year on March 15, by the statue
of the poet Petofi; indeed, it was as if Petofi had never died
(the exact place of his death or his burial is not known). Despite,
or because of, his Slovak ancestry, he remained the most prominent
leader of patriotic and radical Hungarians down to this day.
the war university students participated in the so-called "People's
Colleges", based in some of the university dormitories made
available to students from the countryside. In the case of the
Istvan Gyorffy College, a cell of Communist students organized
conferences on Marxism, socialism and related themes, at a time
when these themes were proscribed all over the country. Many attended
the writers' conference in the village of Szarszo, in August 1943,
where resistance against Nazi influence was openly advocated by
Laszlo Nemeth and others. The College dissolved itself, under
official pressure, on April 22, 1944, soon after the arrival of
the German occupation force.
German occupation did not elicit armed, or unarmed, resistance.
The lone pistol shot was fired by member of parliament Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky,
when a Gestapo detachment came banging at his door on March 19.
Soon the Jewish intellectuals were rounded up or herded into specially
designated Ghettos. Some, like Sandor Marai, a non-Jew, and Miksa
Fenyo, a converted Jew, kept secret diaries denouncing the atrocities
for the benefit of future generations. Perhaps the greatest Hungarian
poet in those dismal days was Miklos Radnoti, who was deported
to the labor camp at Bor in Yugoslavia. In the weeks before the
arrival of the Red Army he was shot on a death march to Germany;
he never stopped writing poems, which have become the most gripping
record of those days.
numerical majority of Hungarian writers and journalists in both
world wars remained loyal clerks of the established regimes; some
even engaged in right-wing and extremist baiting of Jews and the
left. While they made a real contribution in swaying public opinion,
they made no lasting contribution to Hungarian culture, or even
to the history of ideas. A progressive minority of writers and
intellectuals made a significant contribution to Hungarian culture,
yet their impact on immediate political events or the socio-economic
evolution of the country was minimal or, at least, difficult to
comparatively speaking, progressive Hungarian writers played a
relatively prominent role when compared to the intellectuals in
neighboring lands. If we compare across generations and across
wars, Hungarian writers and intellectuals during World War I were
generally more outstanding in terms of their talent, and in terms
of their outspoken acts of courage. It must be remembered, however,
that the degree of repression, brutality and totalitarian control
in World War I was far below what it became in World War II in
Nazi Germany, in the satellites and occupied territories, and
in Hungary during the last stages of the war.