In September 1948 the famous poet Paul Éluard, perhaps the brightest star among the French Communist Party intellectuals, toured Central Europe. He visited Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where I met him when he visited the class in which we were familiarising ourselves with the secrets of the French language. Éluard was a handsome, tall man with grey hair, and he began by distributing sweets among the children. We knew by then that you should never accept sweets from strangers, but our schoolmistress explained to us who the visitor was. Éluard was not a stranger, he was a good man. In Prague – as we found out much later from a novel by Milan Kundera – he was not too shy to join a circle dance of enthusiastic young Czechs on Wenceslas Square, and he danced with them happily. He did this, Kundera adds wickedly, while the Parisian ex-surrealist’s Czech surrealist friends were being hanged by the poet’s new comrades.

Paul Éluard left rather different traces in Hungary. He was celebrated officially here too, but he also had the opportunity to spend a few days on the Tihany peninsula by Lake Balaton, at the home of Gyula Illyés, another ex-surrealist from Paris. One day the two friends, who knew each other well from the 1920s, took a long walk through the hills, from which they enjoyed an amazing view of the lake. On their way they saw a shepherd, lying on his fur coat, leaning on his elbow deeply absorbed in a book.

‘What a fantastic country! Éluard exclaimed. ‘Even the shepherds here read! What progress! Would you please ask him what he is reading? Perhaps he even understands French. ‘What are you reading, comrade?’ attempts the ex-surrealist. ‘What else could I be reading?’ The shepherd answered in French.

The Bucolica by Virgil.’ ‘In French?’ asked Éluard. ‘Certainly not! Everything in the original.’1

The joke is typically surrealist. Because the shepherd who could read was played by Lőrinc Szabó. Szabó and Illyés dreamt up the scene to tease their French visitor. But this surrealist joke – it is surrealist in this way as well – is far from innocent. From a distance of more than half a century it undoubtedly had a specific aim. And its aim, as was Kundera’s in the 1970’s, was to sabotage appearances. The joke had a meaning. It set out to prove that what we see, what we think we see, is not what is really there.

At the time of the joke, at the end of the 1940s, not many spoke of Paul Éluard in France or in Hungary as a surrealist. This Éluard was canonised as the greatest poet of the Resistance, the author of such poems as Gabriel Péri, the Criticism of Poetry or Liberty. Liberty became the emblematic text of the anti-German Resistance in France, was translated into many languages including Hungarian, and was often recited at celebrations.2

Éluard’s poem consists of twenty one four line stanzas. Its structure is clear, the poem itself is a long enumeration, which is held together by the repetition of the preposition ‘On…’ (Sur…), and by the I write your name (J’écris ton nom) line at the end of each stanza.The word liberty holds it all together, despite the fact that it only appears twice in the text: at the very beginning and at the very end, in the title and in the very last line. The long enumerations of the poem visibly aim to embrace the totality of the world, from personal objects (book, school-bench), to material concepts (sand, snow, ash, stone), to abstract notions (lack, desire, loneliness). If when reading or hearing it recited we do not notice the title, we might even think it is a love poem, about a lover who is carving the name of the one he loves into the bench, into his notebook, and then onto every other possible place. The name is more important to him than anything else, the poet feels, and as he writes in the final stanza, he came into this world just to express it.

But the title does not allow us to read it as a love poem. Instead, we are directed to love freedom, ‘known and named,’ with the same passion as our beloved, but also with the knowledge that freedom is something more. The strength of the composition comes from the fact that in the last stanza Éluard talks about the power of the word (le pouvoir d’un mot) as one of the basic tenets of our civilisation. The Word, through which the poet gains new life, clearly corresponds here to the Logos of St. John; according to this view of the poem, the Word is a new beginning and power, an all-pervading power.

The reference contained in the first stanza now becomes clear: Christ wrote in sand, but the poet is not satisfied with either sand or snow; he writes the omnipotent Word onto everything.The poetic message is similar to but different from that of Christ. Freedom is the concept which is placed in the centre by the poet, an all-embracing freedom, which for that reason promises another resurrection: we start our life again in a world of total freedom.

Éluard’s poem was well received in Hungary at that time, but its success had little to do with the real value of the text. The main reason was probably the strength and impact of the title. In Hungarian intellectual life, even in public life, freedom became a key expression as early as the 1820s. Not only in Petőfi’s National Song, but also in the poetry of Ferenc Kölcsey or Mihály Vörösmarty. The French Revolution thoroughly inseminated the semantic soil of the 19th century. But only the first of the three slogans of the French Revolution was accepted unconditionally. And the 20th century continued the cult of the previous century. A poem entitled Freedom quickly found its place in the poetic canon.

The contemporary political terrain was also suitable for Éluard’s poem. The Communist Party, which seized power effectively, though not formally in 1945, had not forgotten about the conquest of the semantic space. The conquest of the Red Army is called liberation, the central newspaper of the party is called The Free People, and the obligatory greeting of the party members replaces the bourgeois tradition of ‘Good Day’, with the greeting ‘Freedom’. Éluard’s poem could not have found a better environment.

In reality the system is characterised by the steady withdrawal of the rights of freedom. Hardly a year after Éluard’s visit, at the moment when the French poet celebrated Sándor Petőfi in a long poem on the hundredth anniversary of his death, the new constitution came into force, suspending the right to political freedom, the freedom of the press, entrepreneurial freedom and the freedom to travel, and abolishing private ownership.

But let us return to Gyula Illyés. On October 23,1956 the nation rebels against the occupiers and against the order imposed by the occupiers. The Literary Paper (Irodalmi Újság) wants to dedicate a special edition to the revolution. The editors ask for manuscripts not only from Milán Füst, Tibor Déry, László Németh, but naturally from Gyula Illyés too. Illyés intends to present his long poem, One Sentence on Tyranny written in 1950 for the Literary Paper. The manuscript is not available, as it had to be hidden during the most difficult times. So the poet and his wife reconstruct the poem from memory, and it is published in the November 2 edition of the newspaper.3 Two days later the Red Army overruns Budapest again. Within days, the revolution is crushed.

The first French translation of the poem is published in the 1956 November-December issue of Temps Modernes, which is a Hungarian special edition which contains many documents and two longer analyses from Jean-Paul Sartre and Ferenc Fejtő. Both studies, especially the one by Sartre try to prove that the Hungarian Revolution did not set out to overthrow the system but aimed to reform and to humanise it. Sartre even puts forward the view that the Hungarian working-class rose up against the Hungarian communists to save communism. By then, Paul Éuard was no longer alive.

In the meantime the Illyés poem disappears again from public life. Gyula Illyés is silent for years, and when his new collection, New Poems appears five years later in 1961, this volume does not contain One Sentence. The second volume of Collected Poems in 1973 does not contain it either, although it presents the poems written between 1946 and 1968 with the title To Create. It is if it had never existed. The method is effective. In 1974, the postscript of a volume containing the collected poems of Mihály Babits,4 the master of Illyés, informs us that the volume “does not contain some poems that would insult the national feelings of the neighbouring countries with its irredentist voice”. We are informed that five poems and one stanza of three other poems have been left out. The censors pruned Babits’ volume, but in Illyés’ case the method used by those in power is more radical; One Sentence on Tyranny does not exist. It is not banned, or censored, or burned, the old methods are no longer enough. The poem has to disappear from the collective and personal memory, the new generation is not even allowed to know of its existence.

One or two years after Éluard’s visit to Tihany Illyés writes his poem One Sentence on Tyranny using the same structure applied by the French poet in Freedom. The first manuscript form of the poem – unpublished even now – received a different title, In Memory of Petőfi. Close to the memorial year, Gyula Illyés translates into Hungarian Éluard’s poem Obituary on the 100th anniversary of Sándor Petőfi’s death. We can assume that at the time of writing his own poem, Illyés hoped it could be published as a sequel. He obviously soon gave up this hope, because the first version of the poem begins just as toughly as the later one that appeared in the Literary Paper and is regarded as the authentic version: ‘Where there is tyranny/ There is tyranny.’ Like Éluard’s Freedom, Illyés’ poem also builds from four-line verses (in the 1956 version there are a three-line and a two-line verse as well), but with forty-seven verses it is slightly longer than the French poem. Illyés uses the same methods of enumeration and repetition as his friend. But while Éluard speaks about freedom, Illyés speaks about tyranny. And tyranny here means the total absence of freedom. The forty-fourth verse formulates this clearly, when it completes the statement stressed at the very beginning of the poem: Where there is tyranny/ Everybody is a link in the chain. Nothing and nobody is an exception.

At around the same time, István Bibó, also a friend of Illyés, formulates the theory of “the little circles of freedom”, suggesting that everybody ought to create a small circle of freedom around him, in his own field of activity, and if they form a system, together, the genuine, long-awaited freedom can be created. There are no traces of any small circles in Illyés’ poem. Just the opposite: there is no hope, it is impossible to create our own little circles.

The historical period that we are talking about, during which the One Sentence was audible even for a short time was called either people’s democracy or proletarian dictatorship by the ruling strata which oversaw public language. Illyés does not use any of these expressions, just as he does not mention freedom either.

The word tyranny dominates the poem. It is hardly accidental that instead of the original Latin word and the dictatorship as spread by Lenin, he uses the Hungarian word zsarnokság corresponding to the tyrannos of Greek origin. Tyranny as we already know from Petőfi is the opponent of world freedom; world freedom and tyranny fight one another, he writes in his poem One thought troubles me in 1845, and the poet falls on the battlefield, as the horses trampling his body race towards the victory which has been achieved.

Illyés uses a language which is completely independent of the mainstream usage of words. The word tyranny evokes the period of antiquity that comes after Athens, the first golden age of our civilisation. The correlation of tyranny is revolt. Albert Camus thinks in a similar way when he uses the metaphor of Antigoné to evoke the Hungarian revolution: Kreon the tyrant against Antigoné, Antigoné the pure rebel against Kreon the tyrant.

Éluard’s summary evokes the whole world, where every object, every notion is conquered by the miracle of the Word, and thus they gain their freedom. The preposition Sur used by the French poet signals a particular motion downwards, in which the poet descends from high above, to liberate whatever he can touch with his movements. Illyés’ method is similar but sets off in a different direction. Already the title of the poem suggests that the world is One, despite its versatility it is one entity, and that this Oneness embraces everything in itself. But the reality thus evoked is still two dimensional. On the one hand there are prisons, interrogation rooms, the summing up of the prosecution, the confession, the sentence, the guilty, the labour camp, the “fire”, as the dead body is pushed into the ditch, the scream, the silent tears – the visible face of tyranny. But this which cites the classic images of oppression and terror, which we know well from the French Revolution and the Great Russian October Revolution, is complemented by another list that is prepared by the rhythmically recurring phrase not only, which is repeated twelve times.

The prepositions used by Éluard create the sense of motion, whereas the constant Hungarian suffixes of the Illyés poem (-ban, -ben, meaning ‘in’) create the sense of a static situation. The first part of One Sentence creates a situation that is not unfamiliar to us, just the opposite, but it induces a strong tension at the same time. What might come after this? The first part shows the victim of the mechanism of the oppressing tyranny, who is arrested, interrogated, and confesses; who is sentenced, executed, and thrown into an unmarked grave, and whose friends and relatives do not even dare to mourn. Everything happens inside, in the suffix, in prison (Hungarian prison-in) or in the inner worlds of the characters of the poem.

This classical view of oppression is well known, but right at the beginning of the Fifties another, more sophisticated, more modernised approach appeared in political philosophy. Hannah Arendt introduced the new concept of totalitarianism at the beginning of the 1950s. Arendt explained her theory in her monumental three volume work The Origins of Totalitarianism.5 The development of the two totalitarian systems, the Nazi and the Communist, was greatly assisted, she wrote, by the weakening of the background, the almost general collapse of traditions, and of traditional authorities. Totalitarianism differs from traditional tyranny in several respects, the philosopher says. First of all through the fact that those who possess totalitarian power always receive that power with the help of a movement, and that is why they cannot allow that movement to solidify into a party, as always happens in the case of dictatorships. The form of totalitarian power comes fully from the phenomenon that power is seized by a movement and not by a party, so the main concern of the leaders is to keep the movement in motion, and to save it from degrading into a party. Thus the attention of totalitarian leaders is focussed completely on the intent to accelerate the movement – contrary to the brutal decisions of the tyrant or the demagogic actions of the dictator.6

The result of this permanent revolution, Hannah Arendt continues, is that totalitarianism occupies every possible sphere and territory. Classical tyranny did not touch the private sphere, while totalitarian thought wants to control not only the present but also the past and the future, not only the public sphere but the complete human personality. It also occupies the sphere of language. This is exactly where we have to return to the problem of freedom.

As we know, in his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant tries to go beyond the contradiction of  freedom by separating the sphere of the physical world from the sphere of man. The world of determinism comes to one side where man is not free, the world of man responsible for his actions comes to the other side, and the result of this is ethical responsibility. In his analysis of this contradiction, Paul Ricoeur asks “whether there is anything in the space between the thesis and the antithesis.”7

In his attempt to find the answer, Ricoeur attempts to define first of all what man is and is not capable of, in other words, to describe a graded series, beginning with the biologically determined perishable body, in order to reach the possible forms of human freedom. Ricoeur thinks that man possesses three means to win his freedom: the first is dicere, the possibility and power of speech, the second is facere, the ability to change the world, the third is memoria, the memory of the person, that opens the possibility to create his own narrative identity.

But this can be achieved only within such a system of institutions, in which one of the basic functions is to arrange and determine these liberties, especially facere and dicere. Ricoeur refers here to Hegel, whose relevant works refer basically to a state governed by the rule of law. The world that we examine is far away from being such a state. Classical tyranny limits the rights of freedom, but at the same time clearly explains to its subjects why this is being done. The situation is different in totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt’s analyses explain this. Totalitarianism does not only totally occupy public and private life, but rewrites the semantic sphere as well, from the point of view of those who hold power. This rewriting targets primarily the notion of freedom.

“In contrast to dictatorship, where the notion of freedom is less nuanced, the totalitarian leader explains every measure he takes as an act in the interest of freedom. Totalitarian power is not the enemy of freedom, it does not even want to limit freedom. The only problem is that its understanding of freedom is completely different from the understanding held by the non-totalitarian world. Genocide and executions are only necessary to clear the way for the historic necessity of world revolution or the natural selection of species.”8

All of which means nothing less than that the representatives of the totalitarian power rename dictatorship, oppression, show-trials and executions, ‘freedom and liberation’. There is no escape, the trap closes. Might there be a way out? Possibly only the recovery, the recapture of language could help. János Pilinszky, in his poem Dethronement, feels his way in the same direction as Gyula Illyés in One Sentence.

We hang around your neck, a board
with the words, ‘your history’

The essence of One Sentence on Tyranny is dethronement. The list in the second part of the poem complements that in the first part. This second series, which the reader nervously awaits after the relentless series of ‘not only’s, is nothing other than the recollection of the private sphere stripped of all illusions. Tyranny that is there / is present / in everything,/ in a way that not even your old god – infiltrates even the sphere hitherto believed to be safe, impenetrable: it is there in the good-bye kiss, in the handshake which suddenly becomes more tender, in the lovers tryst, in the sweet intoxication of words, in the marriage bed, before that in the desire, even in your dreams.

The conclusion is even tougher. You yourself are tyranny, the poet says in the forty-first verse, in order to conclude the poem with the merciless claim, that he tells you, who you were / even your ashes serve him.

In September 1948 Paul Éluard read out some of his poems in the main hall of the Budapest Music Academy. Gyula Illyés gave the introductory speech. Twelve years later, Illyés published a slightly expanded version of his speech, in which he proposed that Éluard’s poetic power is due to the fact that he is also a visionary artist, like Blake.

Which might mean, if we try to analyse it, if we look for what is un-uttered, that we have to read Freedom as a great visionary poem, beyond the 1948 context. And the poem On tyranny written in 1949 or 1950 in memory of Petőfi, as an answer or complementary colour to it, using Éluard’s own methods, and even borrowing some of the key expressions of the French poem.

One Sentence on Tyranny, the emblematic poem of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, gains its immense power from its unbelievably organic form. The structure could not be different, the hard rhythm of the enumerations, the repetitions, the series suggests that there are no exceptions. Everything or nothing. Tyranny or revolution.

The great poem of 1956 disappeared for thirty years, and only its publication in emigré editions, and in translation reminded us of its existence. In Hungary it was published again only in 1986, in the collection entitled Menet a ködben (Going through Fog). Tyranny had not yet disappeared. But the struggle could begin at last to reclaim language, to repossess the notion of freedom. Or as the representative of the next generation of poets, Dezső Tandori describes it, the purification of found objects.


1 As I remembered the story the poet himself told me in the second half of the Seventies. Illyés recorded it in the introduction to János Reismann’s Balaton book. There is one difference in the two stories. In the introduction to the latter the shepherd is reading a book of poems by Rimbaud.

2 The most well known is the translation by György Somlyó. I have translated the quoted words and parts; this was necessary for the sake of greater accuracy, otherwise one cannot interpret the ending of the poem.

3 In the poet’s remaining papers there are four versions of the poem. An account of their creation and the different versions can be found in the study by Mátyás Domokos, with a postscript by Béla Harmat and László Péter in the latest publication of One Sentence.

4 Collected Poems by Mihály Babits, Budapest, Szépirodalmi Publishing House, 1974. The text was annotated by Iván Rozgonyi, and proof read by Miklós Szabolcsi.

5 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York, Harcourt Inc., 1951

6 The quotations translated into Hungarian are from Hannah Arendt’s long lecture held in Milan in September 1955 (in front of the Congress for the Freedom of Culture), where she summarized and further refined her theories developed in her book of 1951. The written version of the lecture, Autorité, tyrannie et totalitarisme appeared in the Paris periodical Preuves in September 1956. The sources of the quotations Hannah Arendt, Les Origines du totalitarisme, Paris, Quarto-Gallimard, 2002, 892.

7 Paul Ricoeur, La liberté et ses Institutions in J. Szávai (editor) Qui est libre? Paris, L’Harmattan, 11. 2002.

8 Arendt i.m. 885.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

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



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


“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 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