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["The most political literature in the world":
Writers in Hungary during the wars

Mario D. Fenyo (Bowie State University, Etats-Unis)

This 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.).

It 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

A 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.

Clearly, 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.

It 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.

The 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 were translations.

Of 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 Nyugat [Occident].

It 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."

As 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.

Anatole 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.

It 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 and Ibsen.

In 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.

Whether 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.

It 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 ruling class:

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!

The 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 inclined.
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.

If 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.

When 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.

Within 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.

After 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."

An 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.

The 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.

Mihaly 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.

The 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.

The 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

The 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.

From 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.

Until 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 column.

Nevertheless, 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.

"Let 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.

The 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.

On 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.

In 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.

Prime 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.

What 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!

There 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.

Perhaps 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.

Hungary's 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."

The 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.

The 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.

During 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.

The 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.



The 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 measure.

Nevertheless, 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.



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