The old book arrived in a white envelope with the blue stamp of a Berlin antiquariat, like a leftover from hell’s rummage sale. I half expected its acidic paper and flimsy cardboard cover to reek of brimstone; they recalled the privation of 1942, when the Berlin publishing house of Hans von Hugo published a German translation of a novel by the minor Hungarian writer József Nyírő. Originally titled, Az en népem,” or My People, the German translator rendered it as Denn niemand trägt das Leben allein, a line from the 19th-century poet Friedrich Hölderlin: “For no-one bears life alone.” Hungary was Germany’s wartime ally, and its Second Army that year had suffered 84% casualties at the Battle of Stalingrad. And because my name has come up in l’affaire Nyírő, I consider it necessary to respond, but wanted some acquaintance with the man’s writing first.
If you’re new to the controversy currently surrounding Nyírő, here’s a very short summary: Along with Ferenc Herczeg and Albert Wass, Nyírő now appears on the required reading list for Hungarian high school students. His inclusion occasioned outrage among some Jewish observers, including professor Susan Rubin Suleiman, a longtime critic of Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, who argued that Nyírő’s support of the fascist Arrow Cross party during the Second World War should disqualify him from ever appearing on the state curriculum. Hungarian State Secretary Zoltán Kovács responded to Suleiman, citing, among other things, my 2018 report from Budapest that named Hungary “the safest country for European Jew.” Secretary Kovács is entirely correct, and I stand by my article. For a better understanding of how Orbán’s decision to refuse to accept a quota of Middle Eastern immigrants made life much safer for Hungarian Jews, just read Marc Weitzmann’s reports from France and see what price the Jewish community there paid for their nation’s decision to welcome in a torrent of Muslim migrants. Unlike Paris, Budapest is a fun and sometimes inspiring city for Jews. Órban meets weekly with his nation’s Orthodox rabbis, who hold him in high esteem.
That said, it is disappointing in the extreme that the Hungarian government has exhumed the likes of Nyírő. He was a minor figure among the constellation of fascist writers during the interwar years, important to Hungarian audiences because he spoke for the irredentist strivings of the Transylvanian Hungarian minority transferred to Romania after the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. He was a member of parliament for the Arrow Cross party, an impassioned Jew-hater, and an admirer of Goebbels. Accused of war crimes by the postwar Communist governments of Hungary and Romania, he died in exile in Franco’s Spain.
Suleiman leaves the reader with the impression that Nyírő has become a poster boy for Hungarian culture. No such thing is true. The artist promoted most enthusiastically by the Hungarian government is the composer Bela Bartok, a staunch anti-fascist stripped of his Hungarian citizenship by Nyírő’s party. That does not make the Nyírő revival any less distasteful.
Nyírő was a dreadful writer. Az en népem belongs to the popular genre known in German as Heimatliteratur, literally “homeland literature,” that is, nostalgic regional stories evocative of rural life. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories belong to the same genre, although they bear as much resemblance to Nyírő as does a golden retriever to a jackal in the genus Canis.
Nyírő’s protagonist is a Calvinist pastor in a small Transylvanian village during the interwar years, ethnically Hungarian but ruled by Romania. By page 3 we know from heavy-handed foreshadowing that the pastor’s pretty wife will be seduced by a wicked Romanian magistrate, and that the pastor will learn from the wisdom of simple folk and become one with the people of the soil. In between, various calamities befall the villagers, whose virtue grows with suffering. The pastor depends for his meager stipend on the Romanian magistrate, who abuses his power to beguile the weak-minded wife. The Hungarian-language parochial school is deprived of its building, and the Hungarian-language teacher is persuaded to betray his compatriots. The pastor is accused of nationalist agitation against the Romanian authorities, but is cleared after nearly freezing to death. At length, the wife returns to the virtuous pastor, who has become a better man for sharing the suffering of the villagers. Below is a taste, in my translation of the German translation:
He is past ruminating. He has recognized that man and the earth are one and the same on this earth. Man becomes earth, and out of earth comes man. This they are immortal, thus they are complementary. Life and the future are in them. Everything else is external and transitory. He no longer sought answers to his questions about what would become of this people, but he needed none – for all at once, without knowing how – without any explanation, despite human hate and human politics, beyond peoples and races, beyond human creations, under heaven and earth, arise happy sounds; an invisible secret, the rhythm of life, swells up and becomes louder with each moment, and becomes a song.
Bathetic as it sounds today, the literary theme of oneness with people and earth was the zeitgeist of the 1930s. One finds the same muck in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The bad guys in Nyírő’s book are Romanian Christians, who oppress and humiliate the long-suffering, noble Hungarians. The anti-Semitism in Az en népem is casual and instinctive. The one Jew who appears in the narrative is the local tavernkeeper, referred to simply as “the Jew,” who gives credit to a love-sick Hungarian wastrel drinking away his patrimony. Mentioned in passing is a forest that belongs to an absentee Jewish owner for whom Hungarian peasants labor as woodcutters. By contrast, the Roma are depicted with sympathetic condescension. I doubt that Nyírő will corrupt today’s Hungarian high school students; he is more likely to put them to sleep with his faux-poetic reveries about cartoonish peasant archetypes.
The man himself was a monster. He called Jews “well-poisoners” who “destroy the Hungarian soul, who infect our spirit,” and represented the fascist party that murdered Jews with wanton brutality. Why remove the stake from his heart and conjure the wretch out of his vampire’s grave, one well might ask the Hungarian Ministry of Education? The answer lies not in residual Hungarian anti-Semitism but in disastrous Hungarian demographics.
Hungary urgently needs more Hungarians. Nyírő’s villagers were Szeklers, a Hungarian population settled in Transylvania far from Hungary’s present border. They served as a frontier guard against the Ottomans during Hungary’s long wars with the encroaching Turks. The Szeklers were stranded in Romania after the Treaty of Trianon, which stripped Hungary of more than two-thirds of its territory. In 2010, Hungary granted citizenship to the Hungarian diaspora, of which the largest contingent—more than 1.2 million—languishes in central Romania. Hungary has no delusions about regaining the territory lost in 1920, but it reasonably hopes to attract Hungarian-speaking immigrants from Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, and Ukraine.
For Hungary, this is an existential issue. It is fighting against the prospect of demographic extinction. Its 2010 census showed a total fertility rate of only 1.25 children per woman, one of the lowest in the world. But this very low number includes the Roma, who have a high birth rate. Unpublished data showed a 2010 fertility rate of just 0.83 for the ethnic Magyar population. The total fertility rate rose to 1.45 since then, in part due to the Orbán government’s subsidies to families with children, but still far below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. If this fertility rate persists through the 21st century, the total Hungarian population will fall by half and its under-30 population by two-thirds.
Hungary’s Education Ministry evidently thinks that the Heimatliteratur of interwar years will inspire national sentiments among Hungarian minorities in adjacent countries.
Which raises the old question: Where does one draw the line when it comes to anti-Semitic artists? One cannot imagine Spanish poetry without Lope de Vega, who slandered Cervantes with a scurrilous piece of doggerel depicting the great writer as a Judenschwein of Hebrew origins, nor Francisco de Quevedo, the divine sonneteer who also invented the myth of a world Jewish banking conspiracy.
For that matter, should we banish T.S. Eliot, whose “Bleistein” poems might have appeared in Der Stürmer, or, for that matter, his friend Ezra Pound, a Jew-hating turncoat who broadcast from Rome for Mussolini during the Second World War? I think Eliot a clever but cramped versifier and a prissy, aestheticizing, and utterly wrongheaded critic whom we well might do without. His dismissal of Hamlet should be sufficient to ruin his posthumous repetition; a yiddisher kopf would appreciate the play as a grand tragicomedy. Anti-Semites have no sense of humor. Then there is the case of Wagner, whose music is banned in Israel—rightly, I argued 10 years ago in this space, but here to stay in the classical repertoire.
The problem, as Julia Boyd wrote in The Literary Hub, is that
freedom of expression is so fundamental to a writer that it can come as a shock to discover how many celebrated literary figures of the 20th century were drawn to fascism. The very notion that writers of the stature of Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis or Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner, Knut Hamsun, could openly condone a regime that publicly burned books, or tortured and killed people simply for expressing a view, is deeply perplexing. Yet T.S. Eliot is among those who have been charged with fascist leanings, while W.B. Yeats was a supporter of the Irish Blueshirts.
The Blueshirts openly admired Mussolini and adopted his Roman salute. Yeats also supported the Nazi Nuremberg Laws of 1938, according to W.J. McCormack’s 2005 book Blood Kindred: W.B. Yeats, The Life, The Death, The Politics (although McCormack’s view has been challenged). Politics were not Yeats’ overriding concern, but his mystical blood-and-soil obsession stains the memory of a poet widely considered the past century’s best in the English language. The English-speaking fascists never killed any Jews, to be sure. Then again, they never had the opportunity.
Nyírő was murderous as a politician, and—in my limited reading—mediocre as a writer. But he had a great deal of company both in his despicable politics and his mediocrity. If we are to excise the anti-Semites and fascist sympathizers from the reading list of 20th-century writers, we might as well start with Yeats, Eliot, Pound and so forth before we go Nazi-hunting in Hungary.
But because State Secretary Kovács was kind enough to cite my impressions of Jewish life in Budapest, I will return the favor with an unsolicited piece of advice regarding Nyírő: Soll ihr gornisht helfen (Yiddish, roughly, “It’s completely useless!”). Not only is it miserable writing, but it is noxious, and worse than that, it is revoltingly dishonest. Nyírő’s blood-and-soil notion of ethnic cohesion never had anything to do with the real, historical Hungary. The Kingdom of Hungary during the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was only half Magyar in 1900. The other half was Croats, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Germans, Slovaks, and of course Jews, who comprised nearly a quarter of the population of Budapest in 1920.
The Kingdom of Hungary ruled a pocket empire of 22 million people as a subdivision of the multiethnic Habsburg Empire, whose army issued the order of the day in 14 languages. Hungary had a privileged position in the Habsburg Empire as the only nation coequal with Austria, which crafted its multiethnic composition to scatter the smaller nationalities and undermine their prospective claims on the empire. Its prewar greatness, in other words, was not a manifestation of Hungarian nationhood but of Habsburg imperial rule. After the war the sundry nationalities who seethed under Hungarian suzerainty avenged themselves tenfold by reducing Hungary to a rump a third of its previous size with pockets of orphaned Hungarians scattered among its neighbors.
Nyírő employed the shopworn template of the Romantics, who concocted a phony medieval past as a putative foundation for national identity. Before Napoleon the Germans were not citizens of a country but subjects of 36 monarchic or ecclesiastical subdivisions. Such a collection of small kingdoms and petty dukedoms could not resist the mobilized French nation. The object of Romantic nationalism was to transform the former subjects of minor sovereigns into citizens of nation states. They reimagined a feudal world that had never existed as a putative foundation for a national identity that might stand up against revolutionary France. Heinrich Heine, the great Jewish writer, derided the Romantic invention of the medieval past as a “revolting mixture of Gothic lunacy and modern lie.”
Romantic nationalism was anti-Semitic by construction. The founding philosopher of German nationalism, J.G. Fichte, declared that a nation could not tolerate an alien nation, namely the Jews, ensconced inside it. The first Romantics were Christian reactionaries like the Schlegel brothers and Novalis, who reinvented a nonexistent “Age of Faith” subverted by modernity; their successors were neopagans of whom the most influential was Richard Wagner. Wagner borrowed shamelessly from Jews like Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, and Heine while penning poisonous tracts denouncing Jewish influence in the arts.
No loss of territory could have harmed Hungary more than the loss of its Jews. We barely can imagine what Jewish life in Budapest was like in the 1910s and 1920s, when John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, and Edward Teller attended the same high school. They fled to America and built the first atomic bomb, sometimes described as a Hungarian high school science fair project. Physicist Leo Szilard, mathematicians Dennis Gabor and Paul Erdős, aeronautical engineer Theodore von Kármán and other Jewish emigres were jokingly dubbed “the Martians”—superior extraterrestrial beings posing as Hungarians who mingled with Earthlings. Hungarian musicians bestrode the podiums of the world’s great orchestras like colossi, including Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, and Antal Doráti.
If Hungary before World War I embodied the Habsburg Empire in miniature, its cultural accomplishments were kaiserlich more than königlich–more imperial than royal and national. Budapest contended with its sister capital of Vienna for prominence in a broader Middle European culture that also flourished in Prague, Pressburg (aka Bratislava), Lemberg (aka Lviv) and other imperial cities. Half the undergraduates at the University of Vienna in 1900 were Jews.
These are the true glories of the Hungarian past. Nyírő’s nasty, nostalgic caricatures of a long-extinct peasant life belong to a century-old detour in Hungarian history—surely not to its future. Hungary’s supreme national tragedy was not its truncation at the Treaty of Trianon, but rather its irredentist response. It turned against its Jews, imposing the first quota on Jewish students at its universities in 1920. It allied with Germany in the hope of regaining territory and found itself first under German occupation and then on the losing side of yet another world war. It lost its most precious assets, the preternaturally fecund Central European culture that bestowed genius after genius upon other countries, first of all the United States. It suffered through the long night of Soviet occupation, and emerged with an impaired sense of national purpose.
To reconstruct Hungarian identity after the successive nightmares of fascism and communism, Hungary must draw inspiration from the Christian past of the Magyar people and their heroism against incursions from the East, as well as celebrate Hungary’s extraordinary contributions to world culture, prominently including the remarkable abilities of its Jews. It might emulate American evangelical Christians, who take inspiration from the apparent fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jews. The Orbán government’s support for the revival of Jewish life in Hungary may turn out to be the most important thing it has done to strengthen Hungary’s national identity.
David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Studies, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.