You are one of those people I count among the great gifts of this world.
As an immigrant in a nation of immigrants, it is in America that Arendt affirms the new-found love of the world. Exuberant, she tells Jaspers that she will name her new book on political theory, On Revolution (1963), Amor Mundi, love of the world. The phrase she borrowed from Saint Augustine on whose concept of love she had written her doctorial dissertation. On Revolution is Arendt’s homage and gratitude to her adopted country. There is a ray of sunlight that has fallen on to her life:
I’m eternally grateful that it was here I was washed ashore [United States]. For my citizenship test, or, rather, in celebration of it, I’ve learned a little American constitutional history. Truly wonderful, right down to every last formulation… I’m immersed in American history and preparing my Princeton lectures on the concept of revolution [On Revolution]. It’s breathtakingly exciting and wonderful, the American Revolution, the Constitution, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, John Adams – what men. And when you look at what’s there now – what a comedown.(1)
By today’s standards – by any standards – the Founders were achievers of the first order, with résumés and encomiums that make most of today’s politicians seem slight, if not dwarves. To Arendt, the Founders were proving that men could create their governments by reflection and choice, instead of forever having to depend on kings and aristocrats, or accident and force. The Founders embodied Sapere aude, to dare to be wise, to have courage to use your creative imagination. They were truly creative; they forged a revolution and reared the republican fabrics of governments which, as Arendt put it, has no parallel in the annals of human society.
The Founders elevated these obscure, provincial people – in the British colonies – from the marginal world to the centre of Western civilisation. The result of their efforts and achievements – the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers – proved to be a turning point in the political history of Western civilisation, radiating out through Europe and the rest of the world with effects that are as important as they are so compassionately interpreted by Arendt.
The enlightened sparks of originality that Arendt assigned to the Founders reveal relationships or possibilities never seen before, or forms of expression never heard before. The Declaration of Independence is this nation’s birth certificate. Lincoln called the people’s right to “rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better – a most sacred right – a right which we hope, is to liberate the world”. In On Revolution, Arendt, assigning top rank to the right of revolution, singled out the American Revolution, 1776, and the Hungarian Revolution, 1956.
The right of revolution has an honourable heritage in Arendt’s thinking. Jefferson articulated the belief that all individuals are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights – including life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The American revolutionaries of 1776, Arendt noted, set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all. Even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading, deepening and augmenting freedom and value of life to all people of all colours everywhere.
For Arendt, the Declaration also endorsed the potentially subversive doctrine that just government can rest on reason and consent rather than on fear and coercion. Apart from Jefferson, she is impressed with America’s political classic, The Federalist Papers, those eighty-five papers that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote, during a period, October 1787–August 1788, in which the Constitution was being hotly debated. The Federalist is the most important work in political science that has ever been written, or is likely ever to be written, in the United States. It is, as Arendt put it, the one product, next to the Declaration and the Constitution, of the American mind that is rightly counted among the classics of political theory.
Unlike the American flag, which has changed over the years, with the expanding number of states, the Constitution has endured virtually unchanged for two centuries. This is, truly, remarkable that one of the youngest nations in the family of nations has one of the oldest written Constitutions. A leading historian of the founding era wrote of “the wonderful Constitution… an Iliad, or Parthenon, or Fifth Symphony of statesmanship”. Arendt saw in the American Revolution, the Declaration, the Constitution and The Federalist messages of universal validity to all students of political man, and also timeless truths about free, constitutional government.
When she uses “American republic” as a supreme honorific, she is obviously envisaging an achieved America. To her, the terms “America” and “democracy” are shorthand for a new conception of what is to be free and human, a conception which has no space for obedience to absolute authority, and in which only we the people and consent of the governed have any authority at all. She came close in sharing America’s great poet Walter Whitman’s view:
The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem… Here at last is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night. Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses… Other states indicate themselves in their deputies… but the genius of the United States… is always most in the common people… their deathless attachment to freedom… their curiosity and welcome of novelty… These too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.(2)
To Whitman, because America is the first successful experiment in national self- creation, the first nation-state with “nobody but itself to please – not even God, we are the greatest poem because our essence is our existence, and our existence is in the future”. Arendt agreed, America’s existence is in the future. But what makes Arendt important and timely is that she recognised and articulated the question of the first magnitude, the question that most concerns those who value liberty and are committed to the principle of democracy. Namely, how in democratic states can individuals and minorities be protected against the possible tyranny of majorities? Equally important, Arendt, in order to understand the relationship between philosophic ideas and political reality, turns to a seminal event in Western political thought:
The gulf between philosophy and politics opened historically with the trial and condemnation of Socrates, which in the history of political thought plays the same role of a turning point that the trial of Jesus plays in the history of religion.(3)
It is relevant in our context that I enjoy a privileged access to the “hidden continent of thought” that underlines the various stops and stages on Arendt’s itinerary as a political thinker, lecturer and public intellectual. My late colleague Gordon Baker – who I collaborated with in the major revision of an influential textbook in American Political Thought4 – was a graduate student at Princeton when Arendt gave a series of lectures there on European Political Theory and Philosophy and Politics.
In the notes my colleague took of Arendt’s lectures several things merit attention. To Arendt, the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights is to liberty what a grammar is to language: they define its parts of speech, and practically construct them into republican syntax. The independence of America was more than a separation from England; it was a revolution in the principles and practice of government. The Founders made a stand, not for their ideals only, but for the world, and looked beyond the advantages liberty could receive. The Revolution aspired to give birth not only to a nation but to add universal magnitude to its principles. The scene which America presents to the eye of the spectator has something in it which generates and enlarges great ideas. Americans do not live in isolation; they are not a conglomerate of Robinson Crusoes; they are born into, exist within, and find identity and meaning only among the society of their fellow men.
Arendt reminds us that there was born in Athens the son of a working sculptor and a midwife: Socrates, of whom the English philosopher John Stuart Mill said that the world cannot too often remember that he has existed. There took place a memorable collision between Socrates and Athenian democracy. The tragic drama unfolded when Socrates, this acknowledged master of all the eminent thinkers who have since lived, was put to death by his fellow Athenians, after judicial conviction, for impiety and immorality. Impiety, in denying the gods recognised by the State; indeed his accusers asserted that he believed in no gods at all. Immorality, in being a trouble maker, by taking a phrase like “justice” or “courage” or “self-examination” – as one might take “education”, “democracy”, “liberty”, or any current catchword – examining, analysing, sifting, questioning to see what men in a democracy really meant by it and whether their opinion held water. And of course Socrates was also guilty of corrupting the young. Penalty: death!
Let’s pass from this to the only other memorable instance of judicial iniquity, the event which took place on Calvary, site of Jesus’s crucifixion. As Arendt put it, the man who left on us such an impression of his moral grandeur that nineteen subsequent centuries have done homage to him as the Almighty in person, that man was ignominiously put to death as a blasphemer. These moral teachers, Socrates and Jesus, were, to all appearance, not bad men, not worse than men commonly are. But rather the contrary, Socrates and Jesus possessed in full measure the moral, religious and patriotic feelings of their time and people. The very kind of men who, Arendt reminds us, in all times, our own included, have every chance of passing through life blameless and honoured.
Let me add one more example, the most striking of all, to Arendt’s two examples, if the memorable event of an error is measured by the wisdom and virtue of him who falls into it. I refer to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. This man ruled Rome at the height of its power and was, in many ways, the fabulous realisation of Plato’s dream of a philosopher-king. Marcus wrote The Emperor’s Handbook, a series of thought exercises consistent with discipline encouraged by Socrates and Stoics like Seneca and Epictetus, and out of which later grew the Christian practice of spiritual exercises.
Marcus’s diary is the best ever written by a major ruler. He composed his thoughts during the last years of his life while camped with his army along the frozen marshes of the Danube, close to where I grew up in Esztergom. It is no surprise I am drawn to Marcus, as was Arendt and John Stuart Mill. On a visit to Athens, Marcus endowed chairs in the four major schools of his time (120–80 AD): the Academics, who followed Plato, the Peripatetics who followed Aristotle, the Epicureans and Stoics. Was the freedom of thought Marcus encouraged also the freedom that Arendt prized so highly? How Arendt-like is this entry of Marcus: “It is about time you realised the nature of the human universe, of which you are part, and of the power that rules it, to which your part owes its existence. Your days are numbered. Use them to throw the windows of your soul and mind to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.”(5)
“Being and time”, says the philosopher. The two are indissoluble. Priority in time, George Steiner noted, “entails an essentiality and respect of the work itself” and of what comes after. Aurelius’s Handbook already taught me the liberating experience of trying to understand the workings of one’s mind when, starting a new life as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, I first met Arendt on the printed page. I was already free from the “iron bond of terror” in Communist Hungary when I read her essay “Totalitarian Imperialism: Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution”. Her essay put me in trance:
As I write this, one year has passed since the flames of the Hungarian revolution illuminated the immense landscape of post-war totalitarianism for twelve days. This was a true event whose stature will not depend upon victory or defeat; its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted. For who can forget the silent procession of black-clad women in the streets of Russian-occupied Budapest, mourning their dead in public, the last political gesture of the revolution? … In Hungary in 1956, not the underprivileged, but the overprivileged – of communist society – intellectuals and university students took the initiative, and their motive was neither their own nor their fellow citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth.(6)
Arendt was visiting Jaspers in Basel, when we, young and old, university students and soldiers, made our bid for freedom in Hungary – 23 October 1956. The revolt of the mind of the oppressed under the iron heel of the moon-faced dwarf Mátyás Rákosi electrified Arendt. In near ecstasy she exclaimed to her husband Heinrich Blucher, “Finally, finally, they had to show how things really are” behind the Iron Curtain.(7)
Arendt’s euphoric state of mind was confirmed by Jaspers:
I read your essay [“Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution”] with great interest… That it is brilliant from a literary point of view goes without saying. What you said about the “events” in Hungary and how you said it was excellent… Our basic views are similar. You were with us back then when it [Hungarian Revolution] began. How we reacted at the time was characteristic of each of us. You shouted with joy… And I: I was startled because something that was considered impossible was actually happening. I had some hope it could succeed, though I was without that “emotional warmth” that took opposite though “complementary” direction in both of us.(8)
For weeks Arendt was glued to the radio and read every news report about the unfolding events in Hungary. But then came the Machiavellian Moment, it came at dawn on 4 November 1956 when the Soviet Army intervened and crushed the revolution. The Machiavellian Moment: that men or nations should either be caressed or crushed; that all armed prophets succeed, whereas unarmed ones fail: that it is better to be feared than loved. The figure of the armed prophet is a trope of twentieth-century political analysis. The armed prophet, the Soviet Army was not a trope, it was a vengeful, ruthless physical force that marched to the drummer, might is right.
As a conscript I served in the Hungarian Army in 1956. At dawn on 4 November, our military unit was guarding an ammunition depot on the outskirts of Rákospalota. Our unit comprised of some twenty-five soldiers and a decrepit old tank without fuel. At dawn, ten Soviet tanks appeared on the horizon, an ominous steel curtain glistening in the rising sun. A loudspeaker, in fluent Hungarian, summoned the commanding officer for truce. Because our officer, a mindless drunkard was on leave, I, serving as scribe of our unit, was in charge. I and two of my fellow soldiers approached the Russians. We were given two choices. We fight and die, we surrender and live.
We surrendered. Later, some of my fellow soldiers fought and died. Others fought, lost and survived. I survived. Left my native land and became part of the generation that Arendt celebrated and captured so poignantly:
The Hungarian people, young and old, knew that they were “living amidst lies” and asked, unanimously and in all manifestos, for something the Russian intelligentsia apparently has even forgotten how to dream of, namely, for freedom of thought… The development and expansion of post-war Soviet totalitarianism must be seen in the flaming light of the Hungarian Revolution. This light – who would deny it? – is not steady, it flares and flickers, yet it is the only authentic light we have. If the dramatic events of the Hungarian Revolution demonstrate anything, it is at best the danger which may grow out of the lawlessness of this [Bolshevik] regime… Such a catastrophic development, as we learned from the Hungarian Revolution [is that], after forty years of tyranny and thirty years of totalitarianism, the same spirit and the same political productivity which the Hungarian people shared in their most glorious hour.(9)
That free voice and glorious hour was also my voice and glorious hour in October 1956. To those of us who were young, the Revolution was liberty. As Wordsworth wrote, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very Heaven”. In my three score and more, I was never more excited and winged to Heaven about the potential of freedom to usher in the new order of things than I was during the revolutionary days of 1956. Those heady days distilled some lessons for me. Dictatorship is darkness pretending to illuminate light. Revolution is light attempting to dispel darkness. Dictatorship uses terror to un-make man. Democracy makes man in the image of freedom. Dictatorship arises over the people; democracy arises out of the people.
What Archimedes said of the mechanical power, can be applied to reason and liberty in 1956. “Had we”, said he, “a place to stand upon, we might raise the world”. But the Soviet Empire was too big for us to be unhinged. When Soviet might is right, it reveals, as on 4 November 1956, its true nature and purpose. It must not caress, it must crush the rebels. Whether armed or not, we were crushed. Unencumbered by moral scruples, and utterly devoid of any tragic sense of its mission of socialism at all cost, the Soviet power performed in a universe hushed in moral stillness.
Weighty consideration, thinking, and will to life made me a refugee. I was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, when I first met Hannah Arendt at the University of California, Berkeley. When she learned about my past, a rebel in dark times, and now a refugee in the New World, her face lit up in smile and warm welcome. The spontaneous rapport of the past and the present swept us up almost as fast as you can see the sky move.
Like her admiring students and faithful “tribe” that surrounded her, I too came under her spell from 1958 until her death in 1975. It was fascinating to see her in the act of thinking, to probe and distil the naked “thisness” of reality. Arendt rode like a solitary passenger on her train of thought. If you could be a passenger, as I was and still am, it can be and is quite a journey.
The most impressive thing about Arendt was her mastery of the history of ideas which, encyclopaedic in depth and scope, she gave and shared gracefully. The thinkers she praised and returned to again and again – Socrates, Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Montesquieu, Locke, Tocqueville and Marx – were seminal figures, who laid the foundations of modern political thought, and who, by posing probing questions for their own times, continue to challenge our own times.
What drew me to Arendt was that like her, I too had survived the reign of all-powerful leaders, Stalin and Rákosi, a one-party state, a failed revolution, the systematic use of terror, violence, political murder on a vast scale, and the omnipresent secret police. The goddess Arendt often invoked, Fortune smiled on her twice. She studied with the two great philosophers of her generation – Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, and participated with both in classes, seminars and discourses that influenced her work.
The goddess Fortune also smiled on me when, thanks to Arendt, I met and knew some of her close friends. Let me start with Jaspers. The Rencontres Internationales de Genève (RIG) scheduled a conference for September 1946. The purpose of the conference was to define and discuss L’Esprit Européen. The cultural conference would for the first time since the Second World War, bring together the remnants of Europe’s brilliant thinkers and intellectuals, and try to relight the lamps of civilisation extinguished by Hitler and Stalin.
In addition to European luminaries like Bertrand Russell, Ortega y Gasset, Benedetto Croce, Stephen Spender and Karl Jaspers, the Swiss hosts also invited Nikolai Berdyaev, Boris Pasternak and Ilya Ehrenburg. From Soviet ideological perspective, Berdyaev was to represent “authentic” Marxist thought, Pasternak and Ehrenburg the “Soviet viewpoint”. For unknown reasons neither Berdyaev nor Pasternak or Ehrenburg could attend and the Kremlin sent its “regrets” to Geneva – the first waft of the Cold War.
At this point, György Lukács’s name came up. Surprise, surprise! The conductor Ernest Ansermet recommended that Lukács be invited as “one of the most distinguished representatives of Soviet thought”. It is something of a mystery why Ansermet, known for his authoritative interpretation of Stravinsky, should have sponsored Lukács, who disliked Stravinsky and the rest of modern music, as a representative of the European spirit.
Ironically, Lukács, widely acclaimedas the leading “Western Marxist”, appeared in the RIG’s final programme as a “leading representative of Soviet thought”. One should not embellish or dress up Lukács, the “Western Marxist”.
He waged an ideological war to the death against Western and modern values. He excommunicated all what he considered bourgeois and decadent, the man as thinker and humanist as the type of reprehensibility, as the “outcast”. Lukács had taken the side of the Soviet experiment in dictatorship and terror.
What he saw was sickness unto death and decline of the West, while the opposite was palpably obvious. Soviet Communism was corrupt, it no longer had an exclusive claim to the future; Marx lost his niche in the Pantheon. Lenin and Stalin were there instead. The triumph of tyranny! The great No to all lofty, beautiful, daring things! Oh these Bolshevik heroes what they have already destroyed, what they have already cost us! Blood, terror, murder are worst witnesses of truth.
Nonetheless, being identified with the “Soviet viewpoint” must have mortified Lukács. In private, he held the Soviets in contempt. He referred in mock horror to how “others” viewed him at Geneva: “I was received there not unlike the character Uzbek in The Persian Letters. ‘Monsieur est Persan? Comment peut-on être Persan?’”
The comparison is instructive. Montesquieu’s alter ego, Uzbek, is both an enlightened philosopher and a despot. At first, Uzbek sees only the folly of the “profane” Europeans, and then recognises that truth will only reveal itself to a free and independent mind. Lukács’s clever, scathing vignettes of the “decadent” West are not matched by acerbic vignettes of the East. The most general formula at the basis of Lukács’s thinking is: Do this and this, refrain from this and this – and you will be a good Marxist.
Already at Geneva the Cold War cast its shadow even on the friendly exchanges between Stephen Spender and Lukács. During luncheon with Spender, who was representing UNESCO at the conference, Lukács and his wife Gertrud enquired why Spender was no longer a communist. “Because I object to the concentration camps”, replied Spender. Gertrud, whose son had just returned from the Gulag with frost-bitten fingers, exclaimed: “Oh, we were always so grateful when our friends were sent to the re-education centres.”(10)
Right across the table, Spender, facing Lukács, the true believer, felt the first chill of the Cold War. Indeed, the conference convened in wake of Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech. On 5 March 1946, Churchill had drawn attention to alarming portents in Eastern Europe.
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest… all these famous cities and the population around them lie in the Soviet sphere and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and increasing measure of control from Moscow.(11)
In Geneva, Lukács’s words shine alternatively in differing colours, they are seldom unequivocal, and he performed many coloured actions. Lukács, the hybrid European, spoke of man’s need in post-war Europe to rise from servitude to master. This while the Red Army still occupied Budapest and Vienna. It is in vain Lukács parades himself as humanist, or classical or European, in moribus et artibus: the “cap does not fit”! The Marxist “spirit”, especially the “historical spirit”, perceives an advantage even in this pretence.
But not many in Geneva took Lukács seriously, least of all Jaspers or Arendt. She read a lot of Max Weber. “His intellectual maturity”, she tells Jaspers, “is impossible to match, at least for me. With me there’s always something dogmatic left hanging around somewhere”.(12) Arendt felt that Lukács had no sense of justice or freedom. He compromised scholarship with his ideological overlay. More to the point, Lukács should have heeded Plato’s warning: it is in the courts of tyrants – Stalin and Rákosi – that tragedies find room, and that no philosopher fills a part in a tragedy except as one of the chorus.
It is an old story about Plato that he visited the fearsome tyrant Dionysus in Syracuse with a mad scheme to realise the rule of “philosopher-king” in Greek cities, and that this high-minded adventure was a first step toward realising his ambition. When Lukács returned from Moscow in 1946 and gave his first lecture in aesthetics and philosophy in Budapest, a now forgotten professor, meaning to shame Lukács, quipped, “Back from Syracuse?” As a bon mot this is unsurpassed.
Dionysus was our contemporary. In the last century he has assumed many names: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Rákosi – our pen runs dry. As Arendt has shown us, as continental Europe gave birth to two totalitarian systems in the twentieth century, communism and fascism, it also gave birth to a new human type, “for which we need a new name: the philotyrannical intellectual. A few major thinkers of that period… dared to serve the modern Dionysus openly in word and deed, and their cases are infamous: Martin Heidegger… in Nazi Germany, György Lukács in Hungary, perhaps a few others”.(13)
We need not accept the myth of the intellectual as hero to see what Plato saw long ago and what Lukács failed to see in our time: that the urge to serve tyrants is a reckless passion. No one captured more forcefully the tragedy of philotyranny in the twentieth century and learnt from it than Arendt. Let us not forget that Lukács was convinced that he embodied and represented the “world-spirit”, a modern equivalent of Plato’s philosopher-king. On the stage of history in 1956 among ordinary humanity, aspiring to be light in the night of tyranny, the “world- spirit” named Lukács becomes a strange, divided figure. Nor is he an exemplar; he neither leads nor follows; he sets himself altogether too far off to have any reason to take the side of the revolution.
Lukács could discern Marx or Lenin in the clouds, but not the figure of Freedom or Truth. He loved to quote Goethe who wrote, “And when man is mute amid his torments, / A God gave me the gift to utter what I am suffering”. In Lukács it was a gift with many strings attached. As a Marxist, he was a guide to society, but that society scorned its saviour – October 1956. Add the increasing difficulties of intellectual existence in the dictatorship of the proletariat; add that tyranny bestows the laurels upon his brow – and you have what Arendt and Leszek Kolakowski called the Lukács problem.
I know from Stephen Spender that when he mentioned to Arendt he visited Lukács in Budapest, she replied: “Lukács’s idols, Hegel and Marx, were fascinated by Aeschylus, the father of tragedy. The thrust of Aeschylus’s Oresteia is that crime begets crime, and violence begets violence.”
It is precisely here, in the realm of violence, that we discover the reality of totalitarianism. Stalin had judged Bukharin and condemned him to death; Rákosi judged László Rajk and condemned him to death; János Kádár judged Imre Nagy and condemned him to death. The list is long. The revenge of Kádár and his Soviet-propped regime had no bounds. His Soviet anointed sword, swift and merciless, cut deep and wide in the ranks of the armed insurgents in Kesztölc, my birthplace. With few exceptions they were young. Charles Gati: “I calculated the average age of one of the largest groups of fighters [Széna Square in Buda] at twenty-five.”(14) I was twenty-one.
I can testify to that, in Kesztölc, the insurgents were angry, brave, dedicated and utterly fearless in the face of a despised tyrannical regime, and they were ready to die for their country. What happened in Kesztölc, October to December 1956, was the epilogue to a political tragicomic drama worthy of Shakespeare’s creative imagination, except that it was for real.
The tragicomic is that the insurgents in Kesztölc, O sancta simplicitas, decided to begin the world anew and proclaimed the Republic of Kesztölc. One can never cease to marvel once one has acquired eyes for this marvel! Lest I am suspect of creative imagination, let me quote and authenticate.(15)
In late October 1956, when they learned about the events in Budapest, the inhabitants of Kesztölc convened in the tavern and decided to establish the Republic of Kesztölc. From the village notables a government was formed which had its first session in the tavern. For a barrel of wine they purchased a tank, parked it on the main road leading to the village, and appointed some ex- military villagers as its crew, who formed the army of the Republic. Allegedly the plan was that, seceding from Hungary, they will apply for membership in the United Nations.
A village republic, independent and self-governed, under UN protection! Quixotic, yes, grotesque, certainly. And yet not without some fame. I was in Budapest in 1991 when I renewed my relationship with Éva Ancsel. In the early 1950s she was my teacher in the gymnasium in Esztergom. I must admit, we stood amazed as Ancsel burst forth, bidding us to strive towards supreme existence – the new world of socialism. She set the torch of socialism alight. Alas, a sea of flame engulfed us, ah what flame. But that flame touched me not. Neither merit nor fortune interweaved Ancsel and me as one. The fault was mine, for I could not find the famous Philosophic Stone in Marxism. It had a stone but no philosopher.
To her credit, Ancsel understood and accepted that my faithful demon Freedom stands by, we scatter mischief, Freedom and I, thus, pair by pair, we ruin mankind, oops, socialism. Gracious as ever, she invited me to join a round-table panel at the Eötvös Loránd University that she convened for one of her student’s doctoral dissertation. Introducing her former student who, born in Kesztölc, left in 1956, is visiting us from the New World. Two Hungarian professors sprung to their feet at the table. “Kesztölc! You’re from Kesztölc? What an honour to meet you. We heard so much about the Republic of Kesztölc.”
When we live long, we learn a thing or two; nothing surprises any more. I have, in my long years of Odyssey, seen crystallised humanity before. It flashes, swells and rises. One more generation and it will be gone – the memory of the Republic of Kesztölc.
Arendt wrote, “one year has passed since the flames of the Hungarian revolution illuminated the immense landscape of post-war totalitarianism…; its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted”. As I write, fifty plus years have passed since the Republic of Kesztölc made history, as far as Budapest. The history of the village republic is “secure in the tragedy it enacted”. The first act of the tragedy enacted beginsinmid-December1956whenwewerelefttocontemplatetheashesof our hopes, we for whom the revolution of the mind had once seemed promises of liberation and fulfilment.
Looking back on the short-lived village republic, it shows that all experiences, pleasurable and painful, could be enriched when the heart was free to pour out tears and laughter. And if I laugh at its strange doings, it is that I may not weep. In those heady days of 1956 I saw the gentler, dreaming qualities of man, as did Arendt. But also saw the darker side of man. It revealed itself in the ferocity of Kádár’s revenge.
This revenge, this cruelty was necessary and had to be done quickly and mercilessly. To achieve the desired effect, violence and intimidation must be done at one blow and regardless of all human feelings. Here the question arises: is it better to be loved than feared, or vice versa? I don’t doubt that, ideally, Kádár would have liked to be both. But since neither perfidy nor cruelty or revenge can accommodate these qualities, if you had to make a choice, to be feared is much more effective than to be loved. Kádár became a master in the Soviet-perfected art of craft that Machiavelli called crudeltà bene usate – cruelties well used. Humanity has no place in this craft. In politics all things change their place: fair is foul; foul is fair; how not to be good is good, and use that knowledge as necessity requires.
We see Kádár’s new art of politics when, rather than caress, he decided to crush the insurgents in the Republic of Kesztölc. On 15 December, soldiers from the “First Budapest Revolutionary Regiment” and the dreaded state security forces surrounded the village. They swept through the village and “restored order and everything returned to normality”. The profile of these enforcers of “order” was that of violence, and, revenge-hungry, they tried to seize the leaders of the insurgents.
Seven members of the local National Guard were seized, taken to Esztergom and then to Budapest. Among the arrested were the Minczer brothers, József, 24, a coalminer, and Károly, 22, a locksmith. They were my neighbours; Károly was my classmate and playmate. Directly on being taken to Budapest, the Minczer brothers, accused of possessing arms and of armed insurrection, had to face summary court-martial. They were accused of possessing a rifle, light machine gun, Tommy gun, three hand grenades and a flame thrower. The judgement was summary, swift. József received the death sentence and his young brother Károly ten years without parole. Announcing the death sentence, the summary court judge asked the accused if he wished to have the privilege of the last word. The last word of József Minczer was that he pleaded no mercy from communists.
József Minczer was tried in secret, hung in secret, 18 December 1956, buried in secret and anonymously in an unmarked grave in section 31 in the New Public Cemetery, Budapest. Nikita Khrushchev had Imre Nagy executed “as a lesson to all other leaders in socialist countries”. János Kádár had József Minczer executed “as a lesson to all counterrevolutionaries in Hungary”. Nagy was buried in section 301 of the New Public Cemetery, face down, and his hands and feet tied with barbed wire. Minczer was also buried in section 31 in the New Public Cemetery.
The icy silence of the cemetery, the sunless grave of the nameless braves. Memory over their tomb trophies rise, where over sections of 31 and 301 the pealing national anthem swells the note of praise. In this neglected spot are laid great hearts once aflame with revolutionary fire. Their names – József Minczer and Imre Nagy – their years, their defiance of tyranny is spelled by the lettered muse of Gyula Illyés.
Read his poem Tyranny in One Sentence to yourself in the middle of the night, dark as tyranny, dark as grave. Turn on a single lamp and read it while you are alone in an otherwise dark, silent room. Say the incantatory phrase “where there is tyranny it is tyranny that rules” over to yourself in a place where silence reigns as in a grave and the din of our civilisation – the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us – has momentarily stopped.
Even from the tomb the voice of Freedom cries, even in the ashes of heroes live their wonted fires. In tyranny, the paths of courage and glory led but to the grave. The haunting images of Illyés have come from a great distance to find you. I think of Malebranche’s maxim, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul”.
Attentiveness to the evil of tyranny can stand as Gyula Illyés’s credo. It also serves for readers. Illyés’s words, ideas and images create a spell, a mood, a shape, a form. I hear the words coming off the page into my own mouth – in transit, in action. I live, I generate – I re-create – the words “tyranny” incantatory, the words liberated and self-reflexive. Words arising from lived experience, out of lived experience. An act of language paying attention and homage to itself. An act of the mind.
Where there is tyranny, tyranny there is,
not only in muzzle of the gun, not only in prison cells, […]
Not only in the judge’s cold verdict: guilty!
there is tyranny, […]
For he stands over you at your grave, and tells you who you were,
even your ashes
his to dispose and rule.
In Illyés’s poem the words enact – they make manifest – what they describe. Tyranny in One Sentence is the pinnacle of Hungarian civic-lyric utterance. So much what we feel about Hungary and Gyula Illyés still rises from the poem he wrote in 1950. Illyés was there, the October days of 1956, not only to speak our thoughts aloud but to give them language so moving that they could resound all these generations later. And so they still do.
Where there is tyranny:
All are the link in the chain […]
I feel reality incarnated in Illyés’s lines. I have never been able to read the well- wrought lines, almost lifting them off the page, without recalling the flesh-and- blood hand of tyranny.
On 23 December 1956, the Party secretary in Kesztölc, Imre Kara, the best student of Stalin, wrote a letter. Addressed to the head of regional security forces in Esztergom, the letter listed the names of National Guard members that were to be seized and brought to justice. The winds and smiles of Fortune! On 22 December 1956, at dawn I took the bus from Kesztölc to Dorog. My fellow passenger was Lajos Kara, younger brother of Imre Kara. Lajos was my friend. He asked me where I was going at such an early hour. When I told him I was leaving Hungary for good, he gave me hug and said, “You must go. Sooner or later they will get you like the Minczer brothers”. Lajos knew that his brother put my name on the list of those who were to be seized and brought to justice.
Had I stayed the fate of József Minczer might have awaited me. I have no reason to doubt it. The first paragraph of the 410-page file, that Hungary’s communist- era secret police kept on me, states:
Kadarkay, an active armed member of the revolutionary National Guard and key figure in the Revolutionary Association of Youth, was the intellectual leader of the insurgents in Kesztölc. He spread false rumours of the glorious Soviet Army kidnapping young men. Fearing retribution Kadarkay fled to the West.
True it is. When looking westward, I saw something in the sky – freedom. At twenty-two it is not too late to seek a newer world. That which we are, we are, made weak by time and work, but strong in hope, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
1 Arendt to Jaspers, 16 November 1958, Correspondence, p. 357.
2 Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (The Library of America, 1982), pp. 5–6.
3 Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics”, Social Research 57 (1990), p. 73.
4 Alpheus Thomas Mason – Gordon E. Baker, Free Government in the Making, Fourth Edition, (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
5 Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor’s Handbook (New York: Scribner, 2002), p. 28.
6 Journal of Politics 20/1 (February 1958), pp. 5–43.
7 Arendt to Heinrich Blucher, 24 October 1956, The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of
8 Jaspers to Arendt, Basel, 23 November 1957, Correspondence, p. 333.
9 Arendt, “Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution”, Journal of Politics, pp. 33–34, 43.
10 Stephen Spender to Árpád Kadarkay, 8 November 1988, privately held.
11 Quoted in Fraser J. Harbutz, The Iron Curtain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 186.
12 Arendt to Jaspers, 25 June 1950, Correspondence, p. 150.
13 Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (New York: New York Review of Books,
2001), p. 197.
14 Charles Gati, Failed Illusions (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006), pp. 156–157.
15 Barsi Szabó Gergely, A Kesztölci köztársaság 1956 [The Republic of Kesztölc 1956] (Timp Kiadó,
2006), p. 11.