The Germans that survived the carnage at Dobogókő and Pilisszentkereszt scattered in the frost-stiffened Pilis forest. Most of them were captured by the Russians and the wounded locked up in a school room in Kesztölc. The Russians covered the floor with straw and the wounded lay there. The air was thick and foul, filled with a nauseating stench. We kids managed to peek through the window at the wounded; most motionless, feverish, thirsty, and dying. The Russians refused medical treatment of the wounded.
The Germans in Kesztölc fought to the last bullet not only because they swore loyalty to Hitler but also because, given the savagery and butchery in the eastern front, they were afraid of what might happen to them if they surrendered or were taken prisoners. In Mein Kampf, Hitler states his first principle: “Defend the flag, the swastika to the last drop of German blood”, and Destiny begins its course whether “the German nation was to be or not to be”. How impressive. Hitler quotes Shakespeare. The Fuhrer’s personal copy of Shakespeare’s collected works, 10 volumes bound in fine leather, had a swastika and the letters AH embossed on the spine.
One senses that Hitler is labouring to dominate or rather to incorporate Shakespeare, the great stylist and dramatist within himself. He is eager to abolish the distance between Shakespeare and himself but to his own advantage. “To be or not to be” was his favourite phrase. Never was an immortal phrase more unfortunate and grotesque than Hitler’s “To be or not to be”. To obtain insight into Hitler’s mind, consider his statements:
In modern art we recognise the symptoms of decay of a slowly rotting world. Woe to the peoples who can no longer master this disease… After all, what are Schiller, Goethe, or Shakespeare compared to the heroes of the newer German poetic art? Old, outworn, outmoded, nay, obsolete… Thus alone can we [Germans] and may we speak of the progress of humanity. Otherwise the world would never be redeemed from chaos…1
Here it is necessary to touch on memory and revive images of the twilight and fall of the Master Race. One winter morning two of my friends and I were leaning on the railing at Heroes Square, waiting for something to happen or appear. It did. A human column approached the square. Four Russian soldiers marched, at gunpoint, a wounded German. He was carried by his comrades. Sitting on the joined hands of his two comrades, his arms hung around their necks. He stooped his wounded head as low as death. It was an image of the Crucified One. The “semi-apes” of whom Hitler speaks with such loathing, the “semi-ape” Russians marched at gunpoint three Germans. How transient the power and superiority of the higher types. “Higher types are indeed attained, but they do not last… For the expression ‘higher types’ – means no more than this – it will perish more easily: only the lowest preserve an apparent indestructibility.”2
As the death-march passed us, I saw the face of the wounded German. He wore the pale mask of pain, resignation, an acceptance of “not to be”. The Russians, returning without the Germans, brought to us, still leaning on the railing, the fate of man in war. About war, suffering and death they were never wrong the Old Masters. How well they understood what I have understood and never forgot, that war and death must run their course even in Kesztölc, where ordinary folks go on with their ordinary life. As the great Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden put it,
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure: the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get and sailed calmly on.
When the Germans disappeared in the dead of winter, the ponds were frozen, the streets almost empty, and the snow disfigured the statue of St Vendel, the village patron saint. When the Russians returned to Heroes Square, we got bored and went on skating on the frozen pond. Even in war, for us the centre of gravity of life shifts easily from death, the beyond, nothingness into life and fun. Boys we were, playing, laughing and then feeling quiet for an instant as death marched by. We saw it all. We saw the invincible German striving for excellence. The striving for excellence is the striving to conquer, to subdue and to humiliate people and nations. To name only a few steps of this long Nazi ladder: tortures, then terror, then will to supremacy, then the dealing of blows, then the receiving of blows. Here, in Kesztölc, at the end of the ladder, stands the God-like Nazi, shrivelled into a ludicrous, pathetic travesty of the Master Race.
As the Red Army is advancing from the direction of Leányvár, encircling Kesztölc, deathly silence descends on the village. From higher ground you can see the Russian army massing along the Vienna road leading to Dorog, facing Kesztölc. The silence is broken. The Germans with submachine guns and drum magazines hanging from their shoulders on a leather strap are running in the streets, barking orders. Chaos and panic ensues. Those who felt invincible, convinced that they were actors upon the well-lighted stage of history, are scurrying to find a place to hide or disguise themselves. Chance and genius! The genius, Hitler, is in Berlin. Luck runs out for the soldier in Kesztölc. The ideal of glory and greatness which, yesterday, seemed to one and all something excellent and reasonable, now turns into fear.
I saw the Germans run, turn back, run again, and all the luck at the frontline in Kesztölc was not on the side of the Germans but always against them. A panicked German burst into our yard. Clicks his submachine gun and points it at grandfather. Fearing being caught by the Russians, the German wants to save himself by becoming a peasant. He orders my grandfather to disrobe. Shouting widely – “Schneller! Schneller!” – the German frantically peels off his uniform. There is nothing heroic about the member of the Master Race in underwear skipping on one leg, trying to pull on peasant trousers.
The nimbus of power, the arrogance without fear, how quickly it fades. Gone is loyalty and devotion to Fuhrer. Gone the will to beat the world on the strength of blood, iron and sacrifice. Gone courage. The gods are fond of mockery. I have no doubt that, watching the metamorphosis of soldier into peasant in our yard, they could not refrain from laughter as the revaluation of all values was in progress: a warrior assuming the garb of a toiler of the soil. Grandfather stood there in his underwear. At his feet the German uniform and buckle. The emblem on the buckle was an eagle with closed wings. This eagle was surrounded by two branches with oak leaves and the motto GOTT MIT UNS, God with Us.
25 December 1944, midnight.
I woke with a startle. A sharp light pierced my eyes. Someone turned on the electric light. In the middle of our bedroom stood a Russian soldier, armed, drunk and silent. He appeared out of nowhere like Hamlet’s Ghost Father. We question him not why, like the Ghost, he usurps this time of night, together with the menacing form in which the Red Army did march. The Russian, wrapped in overcoat, was a Mongol. It was at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1965, that I read Aleksandr Blok’s poem Scythians:
You are millions. We are hordes and hordes and hordes.
Try and take us on!
Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, we are Asians –
With slanted and greedy eyes!
[…] O, old World!
[…] Is it our fault if your skeleton cracks
In our heavy, tender paws?
Come to us! Leave the horrors of war,
And come to our peaceful embrace!
Before it’s too late – sheathe your old sword,
Comrades! We shall be brothers!
Comrades, no. Brothers, hardly. If I were asked for the starting point of the Cold War, I should put it when the Russian, the Scythian switched on the light in our bedroom. The light overhead gave me a good view of the face of the Scythian– Homo sovieticus. “Keep your eyes steadfast to the light”, says Tolstoy, “this is how things are.” I did keep my eyes wide open to the light. And what did I see. Marks of ignorance, brutality, drunkenness were not missing. With the face of a savage, his finger on the trigger of gun, the Scythian spoke one word: “Vino! Vino!” [Wine, wine]. The demand, the voice, the motion of the gun, embodiments rivalling tragedies but at the service of terror.
With the Scythian in our bedroom at midnight we faced the possibility of death, an extinction, an abyss made the more terrifying by his drunkenness. How unexpected and unnerving is the history of our descent from night to night. Experience persuades me to see deep analogies between the “going into the night” of the Symposium and the Last Supper, and the Scythian, in the middle of the night, pointing the gun at us. I cannot imagine anything more chilling than the dreadful sight of an armed Scythian in our bedroom. In those few minutes that I looked at him, I took the measure of the history of our age.
That midnight my life changed as did the life of the nation. At dawn next day, no sound was heard from the village, silence reigned, and on the bayonet of the Russians glistened the rising sun. Long days and nights of fear and terror, like a long sob, all heavy with grief and farewells. Around us fought, rank on rank, Germans and Russians, the armies of unalterable law. After such knowledge, what forgiveness. Think how history has many cunning passages, contrived corridors and costly wars, deceived with vaulting ambitions that guide us by warning.
One should not embellish or dress up war. It is no hymn to life. No one knew it better than my mother. In the mid-1980s I was a visiting scholar in Hungary. I stayed in Kesztölc and commuted to Budapest. One snowy day I did not feel like driving and stayed home. I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It is wonderfully good. The only parts I did not like were those where Napoleon appears. It reminds me of Hitler or Stalin. Both were masters of absolute evil and achieved excellence in hurting, purging others.
Hitler purged the Third Reich of Freud and Einstein. Stalin purged Soviet Russia of Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak. A fine purge that is and quite different from a medical purge of the body. Doctors remove the worst and leave the best. Stalin does the opposite, removes the best from the body politic and leaves the worst.
Like Hitler, Stalin thought himself as omniscient in politics, as in philosophy and literature. The savage absolutism of their regimes, Fascism and Sovietism, was hanging upon Europe like a necklace of corpses. Neither the Germans nor the Russians built a house in 1945 with Grecian columns which support freedom and democracy. It is a familiar observation that Hitler’s entire Nazi gallery of characters as well as Stalin’s Kremlin gallery of characters have a certain family resemblance in their faces, such as is always found in people who practise the same trade – killing.
There is no dignity in killing, in evil or wickedness, whether in purple or rags. And hell is a democracy of devils, where all are equals. There is found Nero and Caligula, while Hitler and Stalin howl side by side with their own malefactors. The Past is, in many things, the face of mankind. The Future is, in all things, our friend. The Past, in twentieth century Europe, is the textbooks of tyrants. The Future, the Bible of the free.
I thought about this as I read War and Peace. This novel, the Iliad and Odyssey of Russia, is a hymn to life. I was profoundly moved by Tolstoy’s conclusion that man’s greatest efforts and best hopes are defeated by death and war. As I was thinking of Tolstoy’s advice that our attitude towards the fearful necessity of war ought to be stern and serious, my mother quietly entered my study. She brought me steaming cappuccino. She put it on the desk, next to the book. “What are you reading?” she asked. “Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He is a Russian author.” Her face darkened. She pointed to the floorboard under the desk. “See that, the Russians did it in 1944.”
I pulled the desk. Part of the floor bore the marks of violent stroke of axe in random fashion. The Russians had cut up the floor looking for anything that might be concealed: food, wine, jewellery, anything. Every cruel, violent act begins with an axe blow. The leading authority on the history of Russian culture, James H. Billington wrote:
Two artefacts of enduring meaning to Russians – the icon and the axe – have been chosen for the title. These two objects were traditionally hung together on the wall of the peasant hut in the wooded Russian north… The eternal split between the saintly and the demonic in all human culture is, however, not provided in the Russian case by any simple contrast between holy picture and unholy weapon. For icons have been used by charlatans and demagogues, and axes by saints and artists… The axe was the basic implement of Great Russia: the indispensable means of subordinating the forest for the purposes of man. The icon, or religious picture, was the omnipresent reminder of the religious faith which gave the beleaguered frontiersman a sense of ultimate security and higher purpose.3
In Russia the axe was the standard instrument of summary execution, and became the abiding symbol of the hard and primitive life. A society of the axe. The sound of an axe offstage at the end of Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, announced the coming end of Imperial Russia. Stalin’s Great Purges of the 1930s, which brought to an end the ideals of the visionary revolutionaries, wrote their last chapter in distant Mexico in 1940 with the sinking of an ice-axe into the most original and prophetic brain of the Revolution: that of Leon Trotsky. A bear carrying an axe may well serve as symbol of Bolshevik or Soviet Russia.
It appears that the axe is also the basic implement of Putin’s Great Russia, his vision of a Eurasian Russian imperium: the indispensable weapon of an ideology of ressentiment that Putin has unleashed against the perfidious West. The leading panegyrist of Putin’s imperium, Aleksandr Prokhanov said to the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick:
This is a great country with only arbitrary borders. People grabbed up our territories, chopped it up into bits. Some people got used to this state of affairs and didn’t notice that their extremities had been chopped off – including the very pleasant extremity between your legs – and so it was with Ukraine… Russians had to choose: ruin their relationship with the West, which was the very axe that chopped Russia into bits in the first place, or act without fear, because now Russia has an axe of its own.4
In Kesztölc the axe the Russians wielded had a more “civilised” use, it only smashed or cut inanimate objects. Next to the axe, they had a spear, or pole weapon, consisting of a long shaft, usually of steel, with a sharp head. The Russians went from house to house, sinking spears into floorboards in search of treasure. When their spear hit a hollow spot, they started digging.
Survival of the smartest. The villagers used ingenious methods to outwit the Russians. Underneath our straw stack we had a secret tunnel leading to a vault that contained food necessary for survival: flour, lard, potato and corn, among others. At night, when the Russians were at the frontline, my mother would crawl on hands and knees in the tunnel to retrieve food and feed her family. The things she did for us. She loved fully and faithfully, and knew what she loved and why. All measure and all language I should pass should I have to tell what a miracle she was. She loved me with true love. But she loved most the restless, the pilgrim soul in me, and loved the sorrows on my changing face. Now she is gone, but I see her face amid a crowd of stars.
My poor pen lacks the power to summon up remembrance of the beauty of her mind and soul. Hence these lines from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Woman’s Cause is Man’s”:
Henceforth thou hast a helper, me, that know
The woman’s cause is man’s: they rise or sink
Together, dwarfed or godlike, bond or free:
For she that out of Lethe scales with man
The shining steps of Nature, shares with man
His nights, his days, moves with him to one goal
In our own lives, and this proud watchword rest
Of equal; seeing either sex alone
Is half itself, and in true marriage lies
Nor equal, nor unequal: each fulfils
Defect in each, and always thought in thought, Purpose in purpose, will in will, they grow,
The single pure and perfect animal,
The two-celled heart beating, with one full stroke, Life.”
Half a century later, sitting quietly on the couch, my mother, looking at me and War and Peace on the desk, said: “I don’t know how we survived those terrible months in 1944–45.” Her eyes welled up in tears. I took her hand, but she hardly noticed and went on reminiscing of “what the Russians did”. Her life did not flow on peacefully and quietly. She strained the cup of worry and the bitter chalice of despair. The war, the Germans and Russians in Kesztölc convinced her that evil exists. She lived in her own world: God, love and work. There is really nothing else that matters. Yet these were the very things that were missing from lives in the Soviet era.
That season in hell, the cruel winter months, yielding corpses out of the frozen land, mixing pain, hunger and fear, stirring hope with spring. When never ending snowflakes, slanting in the air, imitate the bars of prison vast, and Russians, armed and detestable, crowd our life and our minds. Those long days of days and nights of fear and terror, like a long sob, all heavy with grief and farewells. Having seen everywhere, and seen unsought, the bloody pageant of war, from top to bottom of the steps of Fate, I gather the black flowers of memory.
The evil my mother experienced was embodied in the soldiers she endured, Germans and Russians; the drunkards, the looters, the violent rapists, the murderers. Long after the end of 1945, she said that one always had to be on one’s guard against evil. She associated evil with the Nazi salutes, a hand raised to salute Hitler. The hand is the executive instrument of the mind. A hand raised in prayer is that of freely given love. The hand raised to salute Hitler is that of a slave. Like Tolstoy, my mother believed that God is within you and that love triumphs over everything. Her hands raised in prayer – I am not religious! – were an affirmation of inner, moral nature.
Hands raised in salute “Heil Hitler” are an affirmation of man’s inner debasement. Hands joined in prayer are a moment of warmth which overcomes all sense of exclusiveness and separation, even between this world and the next. Prayer, the language of the soul, knows well enough what I know: the prayer cannot change God, but it changes the one who offers it. For my mother, not God, but you, the maker of the prayer, gets to know something by the act of praying. Help thyself, pray: then everyone will help you too. How little is needed for my mother. The voice of praying. Without it life would be empty. She even thought that of God as singing songs and praying.
Like all good, caring people, my mother was anchored in her solid, sober life with her established day to day routine. After the storm and agonies of war, she achieved a kind of peace, based on some degree of understanding. Understanding what? The need to submit. To what? Not simply to the will of God, but to the permanent relationships of things, and the universal, moral texture of human life, where alone love, truth and justice are to be found by a kind of natural knowledge. The idea of truth is necessary to our having any beliefs at all, the virtue of truthfulness is a precondition of mutual trust and civilised social life.
I understood her pain. We came face to face with experience in which I later had to take up Aeschylus, Shakespeare, the Bible or Tolstoy to understand man’s defeat in sensibility and humanity. It was an experience before which we, in Europe, raised on the great classics of Western civilisation, proved helpless: the exposure to the armed manifestation of cruelty, ignorance and evil. We saw the naked face of total power that charted the road leading to the very centre of Stalinism; in that very centre there dwells, inescapably, our tragedy.
I understood her anti-war sentiment. War is not an aesthetic recreation but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not to play at war. To show my empathy with her feelings, I read her a passage from War and Peace:
The aim and end of war is… murder; the weapons employed in war are espionage, treachery and encouragement of treachery, the ruining of a country, the plundering and robbery of its inhabitants for the maintenance of the army, and trickery and lying, which all appear under the heading of the art of war. The military world is characterised by the absence of freedom – in other words, a rigorous discipline – enforced inactivity, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery and drunkenness. And yet this is the highest caste in society, respected by all.5
Tolstoy’s indictment of the war is perfect parallel of my mother’s mind haunted by the memory of 1944–1945. The Red Army, active and menacing, on the vengeance trail left a trail of unspeakable crimes perpetrated and sanctified. But it was also an army of looters. The Russians, who set up their HQ in our house, went into combat at night and returned from the frontline at dawn. They brought back their dead and looted artworks. Some of the Russians returning from the frontline bent double with loot, like old beggars under sacks.
Tolstoy is right. The art of war includes the plundering and robbery of inhabitants. The Russian soldiers were ravenous looters. When not fighting, they were a mob of marauders, each dragging away with him a quantity of articles which seemed to him valuable or useful. Wealth there was in abundance in Dorog and Esztergom and, for the Russians, there seemed no end to it. The aim of some of these soldiers when they began to push the Germans from east to west, from Stalingrad to Berlin, was not only to fight and kill the Fascists but simply to keep the booty they had acquired.
The Russians did not bury the corpses. Too much work. They had to fight, not to dig graves. They were soldiers, not grave-diggers. There was no burial detachment. No one cared. It was the village grave-diggers who were to bury the dead. The Russians, returning from the frontline, brought back the looted art and their dead. The dead, frozen, were wrapped in burlap and placed on the ground in our gateway. I can measure the winter months of 1944 with the count of frozen corpses of Germans and Russians. The looted art was piled up, rows upon rows, in our attic. I have not seen anything like this until I visited some museums in Europe.
Why all this rapacious obsession with art? Art offered Promethean possibilities for linking Russia with the West, man with man. Yes, it did. The Russians in our house, including the Captain who was a teacher of literature and art, were totally untouched by European influence. Post-revolutionary Russia, isolated from the West, was eager to see and discover the “other shore” – Europe – and also the “other side” of human personality. Artworks, hoarded in our attic, testified to this. In a strange way, Ivan Karamazov’s dictum that, in the absence of God, “all things are permissible” had become a kind of invitation to sexual adventure for Homo sovieticus – gang rapes, looting and violence.
Consider this. Stalin ordered that all museums and archives from the aggressor countries and their satellites must be removed in their entirety. Most particularly, everything Russian and Slavic – manuscripts, portraits, correspondence, paintings, and books – had to be confiscated, especially from Germany.6 When the Soviet trophy brigades discovered, in a mine near Dresden, the world’s most famous picture, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, it was reported directly to Stalin. He declared the painting and the collection had “state importance” for the Soviet Union and personally ordered it be sent to Moscow with all possible care.7
Not surprisingly, in the Hermitage there are masterpieces – drawings of Michelangelo and Botticelli – that were “saved” by the Red Army. The looted art “saved” in our attic contained no Raphael or Botticelli. Of the looted art, the Russians left behind a large painting. It shows Jesus standing in a boat in the Sea of Galilee and preaching to a great multitude by the sea. That painting hanging in my mother’s bedroom from 1945 until she died in 1997. When she died, the painting was still there, right over her bed.
One day I noticed that our hog scalding tub was covered with a horse blanket. I lifted the blanket. In it lay the body of a young Russian. The corpse fitted the tub perfectly. We used to scald hogs in the tub. It became a coffin. Corpse in the tub and looted art in the attic! Death and Art. The aesthetic substitute for the reality made ugly by war. For the transient moment, art comes to predominate over war. In that brief interval up in the attic, crammed with looted art, I was filled with light and colour and beauty. In midst of war, there are moments of rose and raptures.
Stalin justified stolen art by stealing art himself. “A work of art is a joy forever; its beauty increases; it will never fade into nothingness” (Keats). Art is built on the concept of intellectual honesty, or, if you like, to put it that way, on Shakespeare’s maxim, “To thine own self be true”. It is art which makes life, makes interest, makes importance and I know of no substitute for the force and beauty of its process. The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us. We can and must yield ourselves to the world within us. We are free to yield ourselves. The true history of the human race is a history of the progressive, intellectual, moral yielding of ourselves to the world within us.
Up in the attic with the looted art, I realised the continual reverie of imagination. Art, Freedom and Truth: with love from those begot. I never forgot that reverie. A dazzling pageant of cavalry men and elders, musicians and maidens among the Elgin marbles, a Greek temple shining by the Sicilian sea, the sonnet of Shakespeare, a lyric by Ady, or a quartet by Schubert have their own unquestioned magic. They bake no bread, they draw no water. But they feed the eye, they quench the thirst of the soul. They inspire and stir the senses to action and the imagination to pleasure and the mind to delight. Watching the sun rise over the Athenian Acropolis8, the most perfect poem ever written in stone on the surface of Earth, is an experience that lasts a lifetime. Across cultures and centuries its enduring beauty has elicited awe, adulation and superlatives. The mind sees beauty, and we rejoice at it. Art and Beauty, like grace, work through people; they transform people.
1 Mein Kampf, pp. 259–261.
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale
(New York: Random House, 1967), p. 363.
3 James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (New York: Random House, 1970), pp. vii, 26.
4 David Remnick, “Letter from Moscow: Watching the Eclipse,” The New Yorker, 11–18 Aug. 2014, p. 62.
5 Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds (Penguin Books, 1982), p. 922.
6 Russian Center for Preservation and Study of Documents of Modern History, Moscow, coll.1, inv. 125, file 308, pp. 2–8.
7 Akinsha and Gregory Kozlov, Beautiful Loot (Random House, 1995), p. 112.
8 Joan Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. xv.