CURRENTS OF A SECRET LIFE

István Bibó and Bernard Crick

An Internal Exile

István Bibó (1911–1979) led what could well be called a secret, even hidden life. This is true to some extent of all true intellectuals, for introspection and contemplation are indispensable to their calling. When the demon of inspiration has roused the mind, they can only continue their work in tranquillity. There is nothing more pernicious to the work of the creative spirit than complete exposure to the public eye, when he is able to give voice to every thought that occurs to him, and his personal life is put on display as if in a shop window.

István Bibó, however, was at the other extreme, a creative mind who led a hidden life. Not only was his life hidden away from the public eye, his work was as well, and not of his own accord. In the second and most productive period of his life, from 1948 until his death in 1979, he was silenced by a political system. For thirty-one years this insightful, original political thinker was virtually unable to publish anything, not even as much as a tenth of his writings, and only highly specialized articles on public administration that appeared in journals.

Bibó was a man of politics to the core, but in the classical Greek sense of the term. The life of the agora as a site for conversation and the exchange of ideas was as vital to his creative life as introspection and quiet contemplation. Following the rise of the communist system, however, he lost all opportunity to play a role in public life, and indeed was unable to take part in even the most modest activities of the public sphere. From 1948 the communist one-party system essentially prohibited politics itself as a spontaneous and communal expression of the life of society. For Bibó, the only moment of interruption in this period was the fourteen days of the 1956 Revolution, fourteen in his case because following the arrival of the Soviet tanks he spent another two days in the building of the Parliament in Budapest fulfilling, his now legendary mission as a Minister of State.

Not only was Bibó barred from any participation in public life, but for years one was not even allowed to mention his name. As late as 1976 the Hungarian communist party leadership wanted to remove the commemorative series planned by Gyula Illyés on the novelist and essayist László Németh from the programme of Magyar Rádió, because Bibó would also have played a prominent part, a role that would have constituted his return to public life. As Illyés notes in his Journals, which were published posthumously in the 1990s, the authorities threatened to dismiss the programme editors from their positions if Illyés insisted on including Bibó.

Bibó was a born teacher, yet he spent only a few years as a professor at the University of Szeged. He was a captivating teacher, full of enthusiasm, whose long yet by no means fatiguing sentences were animated by pure intellectual passion and dazzling but forbearing irony. This manner of presentation became part of the deeper currents of his intellectual life, developing over the course of long decades of forced silence into a kind of genre of conversation in company. Bibó was also one of the very few free spirits not to abandon writing after banishment from public life. He always wrote, unless prevented from doing so by imprisonment or tedious work in a library, one of the few places in which the regime was willing to give him employment. Bibó, however, remained consistently in touch with his resources, the harsh circumstances notwithstanding. He always sought – and with the help of friends always found – sources of reliable and important information, and he was able to get his hands on important new books published in the West as well. Thus, as the deeper currents of a life led largely in secret, his unusual talents continued to thrive among small circles of friends or in unofficial contexts, without showing any signs of decline or the provincialism that might develop in enforced isolation.

Bibó was not the only person compelled to live a hidden and oppressed life. Thousands of intellectuals, artists, and potential public figures suffered similar deprivations over the course of four decades of one-party rule. For while the means may have become gradually less crude, the goal always remained the same: deprive subjects of the ability to think, and either break the will of any free mind or simply destroy him entirely. In this, the regime was surprisingly successful. Witness the broken careers of multitudes of creative minds, the wasted or corrupted potential, the frustration that drove so many people of talent to depression, alcoholism, or suicide. The case of Bibó, like that of the superb Orphic essayist Béla Hamvas, was extreme in two respects. There was no one the regime was more determined to exclude from public life than the two of them, and it was precisely Bibó and Hamvas who never stopped writing, though they knew there was no chance their writings would be published, who were unwilling to surrender the divine and supreme serenity of existence. I mentioned this quality of Bibó’s in an essay I wrote in 1980, which was included in the famous commemorative samizdat symposium. The Hungarian title of the essay was, “Megmaradni alkotó derûben”, or “To survive in creative serenity,” and I considered each of the three traits important.

*

This was the image I had of Bibó when I first met him in 1965. A genial, modest, and captivating speaker, chatting and holding forth in the study of my father-in-law, the poet Gyula Illyés, which on evenings was usually transformed into a kind of salon around a small smoking table. I can still hear the resounding tones of his ascending tenor voice. Tall and wiry, Bibó spoke with a gentle uvular trill, but always articulating each word with great precision, even pedantically drawing out an odd syllable or consonant and punctuating his sentence with a wave of his long arm.

Over the course of several decades Bibó and his wife were the most frequent guests in the Illyés home. During the years of Bibó’s imprisonment, from 1957 to 1963, unless Illyés was staying at his cottage in Tihany, the small circle of friends, Illyés and his family, Bibó’s wife Boriska Ravasz, and Márta Sárközi, the co-Editor, with Illyés, of the famous literary journal Válasz (1945–49) would gather to share bits of news and raise one another’s spirits. Indeed in the darkest years Márta Sárközi provided as much of the invigorating humour as Illyés, who emerged only slowly from the depression into which he had fallen in 1957. They continued to meet often in the mid-1960s, when the group was finally joined by Bibó himself. It was in this configuration that I came to know the small circle of friends, though Márta died  tragically and quite unexpectedly, leaving behind a great gap. The group continued to meet into the 1970s as well, though the gatherings became a bit less frequent. In his Journals, Illyés made frequent mention of the meetings and the discussions, except at times (for instance in 1971–72) when illness robbed him of his time and inclination to write diary notes.

Naturally a great deal went unmentioned in Illyés’ Journals, including for instance Bibó’s frequent morning visits. When he left his position at the library of the National Bureau of Statistics and went into retirement, Bibó began to tend to many of the chores for his family, in part because his wife Boriska worked from dawn till dusk as a secondary school teacher. Garbed in a loose-fitting suit, carrying a shopping bag or satchel, Bibó would drop by the house on Józsefhegy, which fell quite out of the way of his morning routine. He always had a typed manuscript or book in his bag alongside the groceries. He would knock on the thick opaque glass door of Illyés’ study and vanish into the room inside. Illyés, who worked feverishly during the day, was usually driven mad by unexpected visitors. Alluding to his poor health, he would quickly send them on their way, sometimes cordially, sometimes showing irritation, sometimes even after a brief conversation, but he was always glad to see Bibó, as one could easily tell from the warm greetings they exchanged and the enthused tone of his voice. They exchanged secrets, bits and pieces of insider information, as well as foreign books and recently penned writings. They tried to foretell the future on the basis of political trends and tendencies in Hungary and abroad, as well as the current rumours and gossip.

Of course there were differences of opinion between the two of them, when their temperaments and mentalities suddenly diverged. Although occasionally doctrinaire, even in the most difficult of situations Bibó strove to maintain his composure and his sober, critical attitude, intellectually and emotionally. Illyés on the other hand regarded Bibó as always somewhat naive in his assessment of the prevailing situation, and he considered him too patient. He adopted a more resolute and combative stance on issues that at the time seemed to be lost. This was why they quarrelled in 1977, for instance, when discussing the issue of the assimilation of Transylvanian Hungarians over dinner, a disagreement on which Illyés wrote several times in his diary.

By 1971–72 sheaves of paper emerged for me, too, from Bibó’s deep bag. On one occasion he pulled me aside unexpectedly because he wanted to talk to me in private. He wanted me to join him on a project on which he had been working in secret: he asked me to help with the English translation of a book and help him find its way to the west. I accepted the task with which he entrusted me, a task which with the passing of time became increasingly complex and demanding, and I became increasingly intertwined with the fate of the book. Roughly three-fourths of the book entitled The Paralysis of International Institutions, which was published in England in 1976, grew out of this manuscript. According to the notes of Bibó’s son, István Jr., the book obtained its final form in 1974. (Bibó István, Válogatott tanulmányok, [Selected writings] IV. 793). It was characteristic of the discretion of Bibó and Illyés that the latter never mentioned that he knew about my work on the translation, though it is inconceivable that he didn’t.

This type of second – or even third – secret life increasingly deprived me of the time and energy I had hoped to devote to a substantial book on the classics of modern American poetry. My kind patrons, professors László Kéry and László Országh, waited in vain, but I could scarcely inform them of the factors hindering my progress. Although Kéry, who proposed me for membership in the PEN association of writers, clearly knew of the other thread of my life, namely writing and translating poetry, I could not burden him with any mention of my connection to Bibó or any of the other increasingly numerous illegal tasks with which I had been entrusted. I could not have foreseen – it would have been an absurdity in the middle of the Kádár-regime – that this third secretive but very enjoyable strand of my life, which often distracted me from questions of philology and even from writing itself, would land me twenty years later as a senior advisor to the Prime Minister in the first democratically elected government in 1990.

At the beginning of 1972, sometime in the winter or early spring, a decisive event took place in the fate of Paralysis which swept me into the centre of the story as well. A letter arrived from the British cultural attaché. Inside was the customary invitation printed on cardstock for a presentation and reception at the embassy, as well as the usual thinner piece of light blue paper outlining the lecture and introducing the presenter. According to the invitation, Professor Bernard Crick was to give a talk on questions of democracy in the British Council’s lecture hall in the embassy building on Harmincad street. But I had also received a note from London in some form or another according to which an interesting, important British friend would soon be arriving in Budapest. I knew that either Zoltán Szabó had been the ultimate sender of the message or the wealthy patron of the arts and descendent of the famous family of publishers András Révay, whom I had met in the summer of 1966 and who had become friends.

At the time my wife Ika and I had become regulars at British Council lectures, where prominent visiting figures of British intellectual life, such as Alfred Ayer, Robert Graves or Stephen Spender, were the guests of honour. The audience (usually some 50 to 80 people) for the lectures and the receptions which followed consisted primarily of scholars of English, literary translators, writers, artists, and renowned scientists who were no longer harassed by the secret police for maintaining diplomatic contacts – or who were informants themselves. The audiences also included diplomats from Britain and other countries. In the early 1970s in Hungary the embassies and diplomats of Western countries lived in a sensitive kind of equilibrium: Kádár and his underlings took great pains to persuade the rest of the world that the regime in Hungary was the most open and liberal government in the Eastern Bloc and that the citizens of the country lived under a kind of “socialism with a human face” in which creative minds enjoyed considerable freedoms. Hungary was an important player in the emerging politics of détente, so the government was compelled to make genuine concessions both to its own citizenry and to the West. The Soviet strategy and mind frame, however, continued to see the West as an enemy and Western diplomats as possible threats.

We became a part of this milieu in 1967, together with Illyés and his wife, in the relative safety that Illyés himself had won through his international renown. Illyés and his wife were friends with diplomatic couples, ambassadors among them, including the Unwins, the American Philip and Hannah Kaiser, and the French Jacques and Herlinde Lecompt. My wife and I frequently joined them, and we also socialized with younger members of the diplomatic corps.

This of course meant that Ika and I presumably were reclassified as belonging to a more dangerous category of target persons, no longer solely because of our families. But we were not willing to abandon this little personal space of freedom and international communication, and we insisted on maintaining the friendships with our Western artistic and scholarly acquaintances. Beyond our personal sympathies, we felt that it mattered how diplomats perceived our country, and we hoped that the mere difference in our style and mentality in that milieu might distinguish us as unofficial delegates of another Hungary.

An Extraordinary Briton

Given all this, my presence at the presentation held by Crick (1929–2008) can hardly have been much of a surprise to the authorities. Bernard Crick was a short, strong, broad shouldered man who at 43 years of age had already gone quite bald. At the time he was already one of the leading British intellectuals, editor of the Political Quarterly, author of several successful books and articles, and an original and prolific scholar and teacher. He was known for his independent mind, his courage, and the sudden turns he had taken in his career as a scholar, something that as a man of thirty at the time I had not known, my familiarity with the British press notwithstanding. But Crick made an impression on me of self-assurance and resolve, neither of which, in his case, was overbearing.

A piercing light could flare up in his large eyes, but not in an aggressive way.

The presentation, which addressed the potentials of democracy today (can one imagine a more tedious, pedestrian topic?), held the audience in rapt attention. It was spirited, ambitious, and original. Referring to innovative research in communications and historical anthropology, Crick contended that the ideal city would number some 40,000 residents, for this is roughly the size of a community the adult members of which either can know one another as actual acquaintances or know of one another, by sight or hearsay. A community of 40,000 creates a framework for trust and transparency, while at the same time allowing for variety, diversity, and dynamism. This was a kind of guarantee of a functioning democracy, and it was also, not incidentally, the size of the population of ancient Athens.

Given this, Crick continued, it was quite plain that the chances for participative democracy in modern mass-societies were limited. His conclusion, however, was not the mere pondering of a sceptical scholar or cynical observer, but rather the assessment of an active citizen: it is our duty to participate in politics, in the life of the polis, as Charles Olson said. It was quite clear that Crick did not belong to the breed of passive political scientists, but was rather a committed person who built on the foundations of serious scholarship, but was never a slave to pious abstractions. He trusted rather in the sober insights of a rational view of the world and the active citizen engaged in civic life.

I recall the first captivating fifteen minutes or so of the presentation the most vividly. My memory of the rest of the talk is a bit blurred, and clearly is influenced in part by works of Crick that I later read as I came to have a better understanding of his intellectual disposition, which was both modern and classical, and bore great affinity with my own.

Following the presentation, as the reception began, one of the British diplomats approached me with Crick at his side. He briefly introduced us to each other and then left us to chat. I began to say a few words of praise for his presentation, but he quickly got to the point: friends of his in London had suggested that I might be able to introduce him to István Bibó, with whom he very much wanted to meet. What about the day after tomorrow, he suggested, in the evening. I was to ask Bibó if he would be free, he went on, and if so, I was to pick up Crick at the Astoria Hotel at half past six. If the date turned out to be not suitable for us, I was to call him at the hotel.

The picture began to come together for me, the message from Zoltán Szabó or András Révay about the good acquaintance who would be coming to Budapest, Bibó and the question of the English translation of his book… I calmly agreed to introduce the two of them, though I was still a bit taken aback. With that we settled the question in two or three minutes, though we continued to chat for a bit until we were swept up in the ebbs and swells of people mingling.

I sought out Bibó and briefly recounted the details of Crick’s appearance in Budapest and his request that I introduce the two of them. We walked outside from the apartment, if I recall correctly, to the passageway or the garden of the one-time villa in Berkenye street, which had been divided into several apartments and gradually fallen into a state of disrepair. He was only a little bit surprised, but also very excited. He looked forward to meeting the Englishman, he told me, I should bring Crick to his home.

Crick stood beside the entrance to the Astoria Hotel. I stopped only for a moment in our Volkswagen beetle, just enough time for him to hop in nimbly, and I sped off again, turning right towards Kálvin Square. When we reached Szemlõhegy in the hills of Buda I parked the car two streets down from Bibó’s house. The street was empty, we saw not a soul as we trudged along the dark streets towards Bibó’s house, not uttering a word, each of us tense with expectation. We walked along the narrow brick path across the dark garden and up the stairs and along the hallway of the upper storey, bypassing decrepit wardrobes and other objects that had been stacked there by the neighbours.

Bibó and Crick spoke for a good three hours by the dim light of the ceiling lamp in Bibó’s living-room, surrounded by the worn, old pieces of furniture that at the time were natural accoutrements of the apartments and houses of the old middle class in Budapest. One of our American friends visiting a few years later sent a postcard back home with the words “Budapest by Night” on it. Allowing my curiosity to get the better of me, while I queued at the post office I had glanced at what he had written: “so that you cannot see this miserable, run-down city by daylight”. Though true enough regarding the state of once glorious buildings, with bullet holes from 1944–45 and 1956, it was not a pleasant message to read.

During our brief trip by car into the hills of Buda I had occasion to observe with admiration another sign of Crick’s intelligence, namely his adaptability and his shrewd and quick discernment. He took everything in as if it were entirely natural, and nothing made him feel awkward or uneasy. He did not raise a single one of the stock naive questions so often put by visitors from the West. He understood the circumstances immediately, and he behaved with empathy and tact.

That night a taut but motionless wrestler and a lanky, elegant and withdrawn professor sat facing each other and exchanging glances of mutual understanding for the better part of the evening. Crick, who was himself a reputedly fine teacher and speaker, let Bibó talk. He preferred to raise questions and offer perceptive comments on Bibó’s impassioned and engaging line of thought. Bibó, who had been craving precisely such a discussion, spoke with even more fervour than usual, though he remained always precise and measured in his phrasing. Crick tactfully steered the conversation to his purpose, for however long the evening might prove, he had to be sure to address the very practical reason for his visit: he did not simply want to meet Bibó, he also hoped to learn more of the English translation of his book in order to ensure it be published in a manner worthy of its merits.

Bibó showed him the table of contents and defended the sections that Crick proposed be dropped, though he of course remained flexible. Then he switched to another idea, as a subject of sheer intellectual interest, an imaginary dialogue between him and his father-in-law, László Ravasz, the famous Calvinist Bishop, on the course of medieval Christianity, the Reformation, and the development of Europe. Eventually this idea was realized in the form of a short essay entitled If the Synodical Movement of the 15th Century had Triumphed, which is included in the fourth volume of his selected works. In the course of the evening, Bibó and Crick mostly touched on intellectual subjects, discussing only in broad terms the strategic issues of international politics, occasionally biting into the sandwiches lying on the table. Bibó said almost nothing of the circumstances in which he found himself. As was his habit, he breathed not a word of complaint concerning the adversities he endured, and he sensed that Crick knew about the situation anyway. For my part I listened attentively, speaking up only from time to time to clarify the meaning of a word or expression. I enjoyed this historical meeting of minds, and was glad to have had a hand in bringing it about.

There could be little question that the two men who met in Berkenye street that night shared profound affinities. Bibó and Crick immediately felt a kind of instinctive fondness for each other, but they also shared very similar mentalities and sense of resolve as political thinkers. As I have come to understand more clearly today than I did at the time, they were both socialists of the Western type, the most noble brand in a world that had been rent asunder by ideological split. In other words they were immune to the temptations of totalitarian mentality, the contagion of the aggressive Bolshevik ideology that no member of the left-wing could ignore at the time. At the same time, because of their commitment to community, democracy, and patriotism they were not prepared to accept a model based simply on the principles of capitalism. Crick, one could say, was a representative of the third way, as emerges quite clearly in his famous book on Orwell, but also in his preface to Paralysis, in which he wrote with great empathy of both Bibó and the Hungarian Populist movement. Their mentalities drew inspiration from the deepest wells of European culture, including the Greek polis and Christianity, and as men of unusual brilliance, men who mixed theoretical speculation with practical insight, they were well aware of the pedigree of their thinking.

But beyond this, though they lived under strikingly different circumstances, they were each parts of the intellectual opposition in their homelands. Their stance was anti-establishment (though not anti-institutional), thought which kept them both intellectually and morally alert. It was a triumph on the part of Zoltán Szabó and András Révay to have brought the two minds together. They had known British intellectual and public life well enough to recognize that Crick was one of the few people with the insight and ability to recognize the merits of Bibó’s work and the curiosity and courage to do something to further its publication. This realization itself would not have been enough to bring the whole idea to fruition. The two men knew a wide enough circle of acquaintances and commanded sufficient esteem to seek out Crick and spark his interest. Since 1957 Zoltán had worked ceaselessly to win recognition for Bibó’s work in England. As for Révay’s major role in these efforts, they can be truly appreciated from the 25 page letter Bibó wrote to him in 1968 and then had smuggled out of the country – now included in the fourth volume of his selected works in Hungarian.

The Orwell Connection

Without going into any detailed analysis, let me quote a few passages from Crick’s 500 page biography of George Orwell, which was published in 1981, the fruit of many years of work. (I myself was fortunate enough to receive a copy in Budapest with a personal dedication by the author.) The passages quite clearly document the affinities Crick and Bibó shared with Orwell, who was a man of a different temperament and genre, but who shared similar roots and values. The decisions that the biographer makes when selecting aspects and elements with which to characterize his subject betray a great deal about his personal motivations.

According to Crick’s foreword, Orwell’s “greatest influence has been posthumous and has been for liberty and tolerance, but not as passive things to be enjoyed, rather as republican virtues to be exercised”. These include “the duty of speaking out boldly… and of tolerating rival opinions not out of indifference, but out of principle and because of their seriousness” (p. XIV.). A few paragraphs later Crick writes, “[Orwell] lay close to the Graeco-Roman republican roots of European civilization which assumed the indivisibility of citizenship and culture”. To me, this statement implies the notion of commitment, the notion that culture and the political form a unity, and they must form this unity in every intellectual and every creative mind, as Orwell suggests. It is hardly surprising that Crick’s second book, which he wrote at a mere 33 years of age and which caused a tremendous stir when it was published, was entitled In Defence of Politics.

There is another noteworthy passage in Crick’s assessment of Orwell’s thinking: “He was almost alone among Left-wing intellectuals in stressing the naturalness and positive virtues of loving, not exclusively but none the less intensely and unashamedly, one’s native land” (p. XVIII.). This love of the native land is palpable in Orwell’s essays, in which he touches on his attachment to the English landscape and English customs, as well as his love of the classics of English literature. But this is also a plebeian sentiment, which clearly links Orwell’s attitude to Bibó’s love of his homeland: “For he saw our heritage and the land itself as belonging to the common people,… [because] they had mixed their labour with the land” (p. XVIII.). He notes that Orwell was careful to draw a distinction between patriotism, “love of one’s own native land”, and nationalism, “a claim to national superiority over others”. This, incidentally, represents an almost word-for-word echo of the ideas of Illyés in the 1970s.

To this I would add one last striking and incisive comment from Orwell’s essay “My Country Right or Left”, which Crick quotes on page 256 of his biography: “Patriotism… is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same”. Orwell wrote the essay in 1940, right at the threshold of the attacks by the Nazi air force against England.

*

This is, of course, little more than the beginning of the story of the friendship between Bibó and Crick. According to Bibó’s son, they were to correspond regularly, but I had no hand in this, for I soon left Hungary with my wife for New Haven for a year to pursue research on modern American poetry at Yale. From then on America rather than Britain was coming into my intellectual focus, though I did attempt while I was there to find an American publisher for the thick bundle of typed manuscript that Zoltán Szabó had sent to New Haven, a selection of earlier works by Bibó that had been translated into English.

Bibó managed to organize and maintain his correspondence with various figures abroad and to have manuscripts sent across international borders and oceans through a remarkably diverse and extensive network of friends, in a conspiratorial manner. Though thought of – and in general with good reason – as a bit naive, Bibó proved surprisingly shrewd in this respect. He regularly received help getting his letters and writings to the West from French writer friends of Illyés such as André Frénaud or the Charaires, but also from numerous others, including many Hungarians who were allowed to travel. Bibó also took care to ensure that his messengers knew nothing of one another’s missions, as his son István has mentioned in his recollections of the period. Now, as I was searching for memories and props to write this essay, in an old notebook – beside a card from Crick! – I found the torn-off corner of a large paper sheet, a message scribbled across it with a ballpoint: “My dear Gyuszi, I could not wait until you arrived, there is nothing particular, I will try to find you again – the old BI”. The message was handed over to me by a relative living in the house, and it was clear to me that Bibó had paid me a visit on an matter of urgency and that I must go and see him.

From our first meeting, a friendship developed between Crick and I. He sent me new issues of the Political Quarterly, and for years we exchanged long letters, though, because of the obvious censorship of international mail we naturally never made mention of Bibó. I last saw him at Easter in 1989, when he came to our home for dinner. According to Michael Lane, another old friend of ours from Britain present at the dinner, almost as a counterpoint to my optimism regarding the impending change of regime in Hungary he obstinately insisted that multinational companies would overrun the Hungarian economy, however resolute or shrewd our attempts to resist. Alas he proved right, though at the same time one could hardly claim that Hungarian political parties showed a united will in the path of this wave.

At the time Crick was one of the main advisors to the Labour Party in England, and under Tony Blair he was knighted and became Sir Bernard Crick. He began to take an increasingly avid interest in the question of Scottish autonomy within Great Britain, and he moved to Edinburgh. He was also known to be concerned with the question of British national identity and the integration not only of the English and Scottish into a coherent form of shared patriotism, but also of immigrants from Pakistan, Kenya, and other countries of Central Asia and Africa. In hopes of furthering this cause, with support from the government he wrote a sort of citizen’s catechism on the basic elements of British national identity.

As I gradually came to understand, complex schemes woven of many threads were by no means alien to Bibó. If blessed with tenacity and courage, a man forced to lead a life of secrecy learns the tricks and ruses necessary to survive as a creative mind. In 1943–44 Bibó had been working on a book which he would not have been able to publish in Hungary at the time, a country that had been forced into war against the Allies. Had it been published in time in English or another widely spoken language, Bibó had hoped it might help give rise to a new configuration in Europe, more just and more promising for the future than the fragile ceasefires crafted at Versailles. This monumental tome, On European Equilibrium and Peace, is perhaps his most ambitious and foresighted work. A few chapters remained unfinished at the end of the war, and so he himself never considered it a completed work. From a certain perspective one could say that he continued to work on versions of this book up to his death, rephrasing and rewriting it. Some sections were published as articles in the years of the briefly lived democratic coalition government (1945-48) in Hungary, including for instance The Misery of the Small States of Eastern Europe and German Political Hysteria. The former was translated into several languages in the hopes of influencing the delegates at the 1947 Paris Peace Conference, in vain, alas. According to the editor’s notes (pp. 677-680), already in 1945 Bibó corresponded with several influential friends abroad, such as Károly (Karl) Mannheim, concerning the book, and had also sent an English translation of the table of contents, clearly with the intention of having the work published abroad. In later years political circumstances made it impossible to complete the work or have it published, and most of it remained in manuscript form. It was published for the first time only in Hungary, as the first volume of Bibó’s selected works.

Another recurrent motif of Bibó’s life and oeuvre emerges here, namely belatedness, at least from the perspective of potential political influence. His book should have been published in 1944, or 1946 at the very latest. Bibó’s composure and his ability to bide his time and assess the circumstances were unusual, both Western and Oriental, at least with regards to his books. During the years he spent at the university in Geneva his relationships with prominent figures in the intellectual life of Western Europe filled him with the kind of unshakable confidence usually enjoyed by the sons and daughters of nations blessed with a past of security and continuity. But in my view there is an element of almost religious faith, or perhaps Oriental, Taoist acceptance in this profound imperturbable assurance that in the end everything will be as it should. Bibó embodied this assurance, although he well knew it was not immaterial when or how change was effected, and he even fell ill when he came to understand, from the reproachful remarks of György Aczél, the Hungarian Communist party boss for culture, that the authorities would again contrive some way to punish him following the British publication of the Paralysis in 1976.

What I wrote above only casts a narrow shaft of light into the maze created by the friendship between Crick and Bibó. One could certainly come across a wealth of interesting detail in the documents concerning the publication of Paralysis. Crick of course was only one — though very important — among the many prominent Western intellectuals and public figures with whom Bibó maintained communication, despite the difficulties of the circumstances. Many aspects of Bibó’s life and work have been topics of interest in Hungary over the course of the past two decades, but as far as I know no one has yet suggested that Bibó is perhaps to be considered one of the successors of the tradition represented by the great humanist poet Janus Pannonius and Miklós Misztótfalusi Kis, the master printer and Reformation figure who returned to Hungary from the Netherlands. Having completed his doctoral studies in Geneva, Bibó could have embarked on a dazzling career in the West, as the examples of his professor Guiglelmo Ferrero and his schoolmate Edvard Hambro clearly demonstrate. But he returned to Hungary, where he remained throughout a succession of crises, including some of the most trying calamities of Hungarian history. Never again was he able to enjoy the open and intellectually engaging atmosphere he had come to know in Geneva, and even in 1974 the authorities were unwilling to grant him permission to travel to Geneva at the invitation of the university to teach for a year.

It is important to note that even as a citizen of the world Bibó drew strength, profundity, and resolve from his cultural identity as a Hungarian. He was deeply attached to a nation that was caught in a struggle for its survival, and the solidarity of his friends at home gave him inspiration. What from the comfortable distance of Switzerland might well have seemed merely a question of international law, in Hungary was a question of fate and survival.

Bibó remained both a patriot and a broad minded citizen of the world in the most difficult years of communism in Hungary. He saw it as self-evident that as a citizen and a human being he had a God-given right to liberty, which, according to Crick and Orwell as well, was due every man who fought for it.

Regarding the question of belatedness, it is worth saying a few words on the reception of Bibó’s book Paralysis in the English speaking world. Neither Crick’s perceptive Foreword nor the positive reviews in the press were enough to win Bibó broad recognition. The profits made from the sales apparently did not even cover the costs of publishing. My friend Mátyás Sárközi, the Hungarian exile writer who was also among those who paved the way for the book in London, tells me that Crick himself contributed significant amounts of his own money to defray some of the expenses. This generosity was typical of him. He is known to have donated the honorarium he received for his biography of Orwell, by no means a trivial sum, in order to support the foundation of the George Orwell Memorial Trust, which is still active today, and the creation of the very prestigious Orwell Prize. Perhaps he was deliberately a bit withdrawn in his publicity campaign for the book at the time of its launch because he feared for Bibó’s freedom and safety back in Hungary. He very clearly did what he could to keep from endangering Bibó, even in the years of détente. That must explain the fact that in his Introduction he makes no mention of their meeting in Budapest, and he contends that his knowledge of Bibó was based entirely on information provided by his friends in London.

Or perhaps the effect of the book would have been bigger if – at Crick’s suggestion – some of the important concrete examples, such as the thorough and extensive analyses of the crises in Cyprus and Palestine, had not been left out from the English edition? These questions merit further research, for they are by no means immaterial today, and they are not merely matters of history.

It is true that Paralysis is not among Bibó’s most eloquently written works. It lacks the tension and excitement of political dramas of the moment. At the same time, it exemplifies the virtues of Bibó’s political-philosophical analyses, not to mention his elegant and measured style, in which he was able to refute fashionable clichés of political thinking without any fuss or fanfare. The fifth chapter of the book is an excellent example of this, and we publish it here in its entirety. Bibó analyzed the relationship between national self-determination and nationalism with unusual precision, and he arrived at conclusions that differed strikingly from the views popular in public thinking at the time — and today. In his Foreword Crick offers a pithy characterization of Bibó’s intellectual and moral constitution: “From out of one of the most troubled but civilised countries of Europe, Hungary, comes a quiet and unspectacular, yet courageous and scholarly, humanistic but practical voice which argues against both the false idealism of a world government’ and the false realism of ‘since not world government then simply the self-interest of the great powers’” (p. III.). Crick was optimistic regarding the future of the book: “I am convinced that it will be looked back to as the beginning of a time of, as it were, a realistic idealism” (p. IV).

Setting aside the story of the friendship between Crick and Bibó for a moment, it is Worth pondering why Bibó never won the renown in the West, not even after 1990, that he would have merited on the basis of the significance of his ideas and the force of his arguments. Jerzy Snopek, the Polish translator of his writings, offered a striking example of this at the centennial conference of the Hungarian Writers’ Association. As he noted, the perceptive and still pertinent analysis of Wilhelmine Germany in German Political Hysteria, accessible in German, goes largely unmentioned by German authors today, even those who share Bibó’s assessment. It is also worth pondering why Gallimard backed out of the publication of a completed French translation of Bibó’s selected works in early 1990, with the explanation that with the fall of the Berlin Wall the book had lost its relevance. One can only wonder how much (or little) of the book their editor had read.

And one may also wonder why the relationship between the Hungarian intellect and the French intellect has remained one of unrequited love, to borrow Gyula Illyés’ phrasing. Why has Bibó’s commitment to the spirit of a European citizenry won so little recognition? Why have his East Central European solidarity and his self-critical Hungarian patriotism received so few echoes from our neighbours? For it would be hard to claim that the work and ideas of Bibó created a new discourse in our region, even after 1990.

Can one hope that now, with the centenary publication of new translations, a new chapter will open? In his analyses of the growth of Europe, already sixty years ago Bibó discerned common currents of intellect and mentality which, having emerged many centuries ago, were to become the emotional foundation for the formation of the European Community — and potentials of which, as we know very well, have not yet been fully explored.

Translated by Thomas Cooper and the author

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email

More
articles

LEADERSHIP IN WAR

Winston Churchill had no doubts about the importance of studying history: ‘In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ This includes its subset, leadership in war. Great war leaders, as

REFLECTIONS ON ‘A NATION DISMEMBERED’

“But obligations are reciprocal. Those who gained at Trianon have obligations as well. Their obligation is to shape countries with an absolute minimum of injustice so that they can ask

THE ROLE OF THE UNITED STATES IN HUNGARY’S TRIANON TRAGEDY

“The extremely influential pan-Slavic movement and the idea of dismantling Austria–Hungary emerged in Cleveland and Pittsburgh after a long period of Germanization in the nineteenth century, while the quasi-declaration of