Hungarian “progressive” writers and World War I

Years ago there was a series of conferences jointly sponsored by Brooklyn College and The City University of New York on the Habsburg Monarchy and World War I. One of the lecturers was the late Robert A. Kann, a historian of the Habsburg Empire, who talked about the war hysteria that broke out among Austro-German writers during the war. The Hungarian historians in the audience came up with the idea that perhaps it would be worth taking a look at the Hungarian literary scene at the time. We remembered no war hysteria among Hungarian writers. On the contrary, we all recalled that our Hungarian teachers emphasized the anti-war sentiment of the "progressive" Hungarian writers. Béla Király, one of the organizers of the conference series, was especially enthusiastic and eventually I was asked to give a lecture on the subject. The study eventually appeared in print.

I was hesitant about accepting the job because I didn't know how well equipped Yale's Sterling Library was when it came to Hungarian literature. After all, no Hungarian language or literature courses were offered at the university. Columbia's library was much better in this respect, but I had no time to spend two or three weeks in New York only to peruse Hungarian literary pieces between 1914 and 1918. It turned out that my fear was unjustified. There was a surprising amount of material. Certainly enough to be able to write a short study on the subject. My readings helped me revise my high school impressions of Hungarian writers' attitudes toward the war. It wasn't as simple as our teachers claimed: in fact, all those progressive writers were quite enthusiastic about the war, at least until 1917. The tide turned after the losses were mounting, life at home became ever harder and when their last hope, Charles IV of Hungary, was unable to end the war as they all prayed he would.

How did I resuscitate this old topic? I was reorganizing my "favorites" on the computer when I rediscovered that Nyugat (West), the most prestigious literary periodical between 1908 and 1941, was available on line. Nyugat may have been prestigious and influential but it had a circulation of only a few hundred at the beginning and no more than a couple of thousand in its heyday. One thing is sure: no copy got to Sterling Library. So I decided to take a quick, if belated, look at it and found right off the bat two or three articles by Ignotus certainly worth pondering over. Ignotus was the pen name of Hugó Veigelsberg (1869-1949), one of the founders of Nyugat and during our period its editor-in-chief. For those whose Latin is either nonexistent or (in my case) rusty, "ignotus" means "unknown, obscure, ignorant, ignoble." Surely, the editor-in-chief of Nyugat used the word in its first sense. As far as I know, he officially changed his name to Ignotus in 1907 and his son Pál's official name was Pál (Paul) Ignotus (1901-1978 [London]). For at least three generations the Veigelsberg/Ignotus family was involved in the media. Leó Veigelsberg was the editor-in-chief of the famous German language daily of Budapest, Pester Loyd, between 1872 and 1907, and Paul Ignotus worked for the BBC during World War II. He spent the years between 1949 and 1956 in a Hungarian jail, which he later recounted in Political Prisoner: A Personal Account. I read this book in Canada when it first appeared in 1959. But back to the main thread.

Ignotus welcomed the war in his editorial entitled simply "Háború" (War) in the August 1914 issue of the periodical. He believed that in spite of the fact that Austria-Hungary had attacked Serbia the war was a defensive one. If Austria-Hungary hadn't done something by way of a preemptive strike either Russia, Serbia or Romania would have attacked and destroyed it. Ignotus said: "If I ask myself and if we all ask ourselves not out of patriotism but out of cold calculation: do I want to be a Serb? A Romanian? Or a Russian? I look southward toward the Balkans or northward at Finland and I say, no." By November, Ignotus wrote a lengthy piece about how easily one can get used to war. And, he continued, one has to become used to it because it must have a victorious ending. A good war should last a long time, not just a few weeks. An interesting thought!

By early 1915 Ignotus got to the point that he was certain that if Goethe, Schiller, Deák or Grillparzer had lived in 1915 they would have done exactly what the political leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary were doing, while Edward Gray was simply not fit to belong to the nation of Shakespeare or Raymond Poincaré that of Voltaire. And the interesting thing was that the Hungarian right thought that people around Nyugat were not good patriots. Ignotus was a devoted patriot and a great supporter of the Dual Monarchy and an admirer of Franz Joseph II. In his obituary of the emperor-king in the December 1916 issue of Nyugat Ignotus talks about him in glowing terms, remembering only the dear old king of a grateful nation. No wonder that modern publicists find an easy comparison between the career of Franz Joseph and that of János Kádár. Both started as hated leaders who occupied their positions with the assistance of foreign powers but who eventually became generally liked and admired.

Looking at the articles in Nyugat, my assessment about the enthusiasm for the war even in the most "progressive" literary circles didn't change. In fact, it has been reinforced. My look at the periodical was very cursory. It would deserve a much closer look.

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Paul Hellyer
Guest

This certainly sounds like an interesting topic – All issues of the Nyugat are available at http://www.mek.iif.hu/porta/szint/human/szepirod/magyar/nyugat/html/index.html. I would also recommend Ignotus’ book, Hungary, which is available in English. I read years ago and found it very readable indeed.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul Hellyer: “All issues of the Nyugat are available at http://www.mek.iif.hu/porta/szint/human/szepirod/magyar/nyugat/html/index.html
Thank you. I should have given the URL.

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Thanks for the post Eva! Its a fantastic topic.

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Look this picture! Vandalised Heroes Square by communists.
They are Evas’s progressive internationalist people, who fought against Hungarian historical monuments and statues and national symbols in 1919. The multiethnic nature of Budapest in 1919

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