WAR AND ART – PART IV (3)

Memoirs of a Hungarian Childhood Part IV (3)

It is instructive to compare Hitler and Churchill as boys in school. Churchill at St George’s School, Ascot (1884). Headmaster’s remarks. General conduct: “very – bad – is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere. He has very great abilities.” Hitler’s memories as a schoolboy:

Our teachers were a repellent lot: their collars greasy and yellow with dirt. Among them there was only one who dressed decently; and it is an interesting fact that, when I visited Klagenfurt [1942], I found him – in the SS! I was very moved to meet him again… There is no enthusiasm greater than that of a young man of thirteen to seventeen years of age. They will gladly let themselves be cut to pieces for the sake of their teacher, if he is a real man. I should very much like to see our youth led into battle by their teachers!1

In Austria, religious instruction was given by priests. Hitler was the eternal asker of questions:

Since I was completely master of the material, I was unassailable. I always had the best marks. Father Schwarz one day asked me if I said my prayers in the morning, at midday and at night. No, Sir, I don’t say prayers. Besides, I don’t know God could be interested in the prayers of a secondary schoolboy. “Sit down, Hitler”.

When Father Schwarz entered the classroom, I used to excite him by waving pencils in the colour of Greater Germany. “Put away those abominable colours at once”, he would say. Then I would get up and explain to him that it was the symbol of our national ideal.

“Sit down, Hitler!” he shouted.

Father Schwarz had a speech defect. Could not pronounce the letter “h”. He read my name several times, I pretended not to hear. When he identified me, he asked me why I didn’t answer. “My name is not Itler. My name is Hitler.”

Hitler receives his school certificate. Excited, he and his buddies get drunk. It is the only time he was ever drunk. He cannot find his certificate. It appears that, in the absent-mindedness of intoxication, “I had confused the precious document with toilet paper. I was overwhelmed. I made a promise to myself that I would never get drunk again, and I have kept my promise.”

If Churchill only knew about this. “Itler” the schoolboy wiping his arsehole with his school certificate. These are the episodes in his life that need not baffle us. We see there, as if through a glass darkly, the future Fuhrer of Germany. How prophetic Father Schwarz’s warning to “Itler”: “You unhappy boy. You’ll realise what you are, in the next world. You won’t go to Heaven.”

And how about “Itler’s” ambition and aspiration? “In my hand a suitcase of cloths and underwear, in my heart an indomitable will, I journey to Vienna… I wanted to become something.” When his father asked him what he wanted to be, he replied: “A painter. An artist!” The father for a moment was struck speechless. “Painter? Artist?”

He doubted my sanity. When I persisted, my father exploded. “Artist, no, never as long as I live.” My father did not depart from his “Never”.
And I intensified my “Oh, Yes”.

The defiant exclamation “Oh, Yes” sums up the tragedy of Hitler and the tragic fate of Europe. He was by nature an artist. He would rather be a painter than an annihilator. So he said. Once the war ended, and he won the war, he would end his life as an artist and not as a war-monger. Oh, yes. Bloodthirsty tyrants like to boast of their artistic tastes. Had Hitler become an artist rather than a conqueror, the world would have gained a dilettante in a masterless world. But as Fuhrer he accepted in advance the idea of millions killed for the supposed happiness of those who remain.

Let’s see what happens to art when the artist turned Fuhrer and his army march into Florence. It is no longer the Florence of Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo or the Medici. It is not that perfection, that utterly harmonious aesthetic atmosphere that makes it unique in the world. At the Uffizi all the windows and skylights are gone and defaced decorative frescoes hang down from the walls. Someone had written in chalk below the statue of Dante in the empty Uffizi:

In sul passo dell’ Arno
I tedeschi hanno lasciate
Il ricordo della loro civita

[In the crossing of Arno / The Germans have left / A souvenir of their good manners]

Hitler the artist, the lover of art. The first shipment of confiscated art objects sent to Germany from Paris required 30 rail cars and consisted primarily of Rothschild’s paintings intended for Hitler’s Art Museum in Linz, Austria. As early as 1940, Hitler ordered that all confiscated works of art be brought to Germany and placed at his personal disposal. The stolen artworks were to “send a ray of beauty and joy” into the revered life of the Fuhrer on whose face were written the words: “Thou shalt have no other gods beside me.” In Germany of old, Bismarck said, “Me and God”. In new Germany, Hitler said, “Me or God”. He called it progress.

He took the moral authority for disregarding any and all human rights to justice, freedom or happiness, and for conquering Europe for a new world order, for that of the artist, who, like God, creates at will. He felt free of all moral, human, social ties as soon as art was involved. Hitler alerts us early to what is deepest in him; he is possessed by an artistic desire which he also gratifies. He attains what he avows, and destroys what he denounces. The Nazi art canon enjoined the banishment of all evocation of human anguish, distress and pain. In sum, all ugliness from people and consciousness. In Hitler’s own mind the aesthetic defeat of ugliness by beauty dovetailed with the extermination of the Jews – ugliness incarnate – by the Aryans.

Here are four statements of Hitler that have lodged in me as a reader, and that I, in turn, have found instructive and emblematic. “At the Realschule I was by far the best in my class at drawing.” “Aside from the trash of modern art, which a nation of Negroes might have produced, the German alone possessed a truly artistic attitude.” “After all, what are Schiller, Goethe or Shakespeare compared to the heroes of the new German poetic art? Old, outworn, outmoded, nay, obsolete.” “Only we, Germans, can and may speak of the progress of humanity. Otherwise the world would never be redeemed from chaos.” Even after D-day, Hitler explained his reverses by the fact that the commanders of the United States military forces were more or less of Prussian origin – Eisenhower, Nimitz, and by adoption, Patton.

Hitler’s megalomania had no limit. He cast himself into a world historical figure, to shape the history of Europe for a thousand years. As late as February 1945, when the fate of Germany is sealed, he makes a prophecy: “With the defeat of the Reich… there will remain in the world only two Great Powers capable of confronting each other – the United States and Soviet Russia.”

This prophecy has its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous conclusion in his acclaimed classic, Democracy in America (1834):

There are, at present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points. I allude to the Russians and the Americans… they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place amongst the nations. The American struggles against natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men… Their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.2

Hitler did not live to see the fulfilment of Tocqueville’s and his own prophecy. Incredible as it may sound, he was convinced that, rather than hold America aloof from Europe, he could bring both North and South America into the “new order”. All this, of course, under German domination. The Anschluss of Austria, Holland and Belgium were but a prelude to the Anschluss of America and the breakup of the British Empire.

In his view Americans don’t have “the brains of a hen”3 and, therefore,

I don’t see much future for the Americans. In my view, it is a degenerate, decaying country… I like an Englishman a thousand times better than an American… Everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it is half Judaised, and the other half negrified. How can one expect a state like that to hold together? … Without Europe, America is not conceivable. Why shouldn’t we have the strength necessary to become one of the world’s centres of attraction? A hundred and twenty million people of Germanic stock, when they have consolidated their position – that’s a force against which nobody in the world will be able to do anything… The British are nothing but a twig from the German tree. They have no claims whatever to share in the responsibility for the security of Europe. For that Germany is prepared to accept full and sole responsibility.

If Churchill was a “twig from the German tree”, he was, for Hitler, a “puppet” of the Jews. “The English Jew or businessman, the size of their fortune is in inverse ratio to the size of their brains.” Had Hitler to choose between Churchill and Stafford Cripps: “I have no hesitation in choosing. I prefer a hundred times the undisciplined swine [Churchill] who is drunk eight hours of every day in twenty- four, to the Puritan.”

We know from Joseph Goebbels’ diaries that, one month before the Reich collapsed,

The objective which the Fuhrer has in mind is to discover some possibility of an accommodation with the Soviet Union and then to pursue the struggle against England with brutal force. England has always been the mischief-maker in Europe; if she was finally swept out of Europe, then we should have peace and quiet, at least for a time.4

But in this mad-brained anti-England coalition of Germany and Russia, Hitler expected “nothing from the Magyars. They were corpses before they were dead.” There is much truth in the verity of the Greeks. Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Hitler had no love for the Magyars or their land. He felt that,

From a social point of view, the sickest communities of the New Europe are: first, Hungary, then Italy… We shan’t succeed in preserving the German minorities in Hungary except by taking over the control of the State – or else we shall have to withdraw our minorities from Hungary… In our plans for colonisation in Russia, we’ll find room for these minorities. But if we want to convert the Danube into a German river, our policy will have to be different. In that case, we’d have to settle all our minorities from the Balkans on the banks of the river [Danube].5

Oh these Nazis what they dreamed of and what they have cost us. Here it is necessary to draw a contrast between Hitler the Fuhrer and Hitler the artist.

It is against my inclination that I devoted myself to politics. I didn’t see in politics, anyway, but a means to an end – Art! Some people suppose it would deeply grieve me to give up the activity that occupies me at this moment. They are deeply mistaken, for the finest day of my life will be that on which I leave politics behind me, with its grief of torments. When the war is over, and I have the sense of having accomplished my duty, I shall retire. Then I would like to devote five or ten years to clarifying my thoughts and setting it down on paper. My dearest wish would be to be able to wander about in Italy as an unknown painter. The only things that exist are the works of human genius. If somebody else had one day been found to accomplish the work to which I’ve devoted myself, I would never have entered on the path of politics. I’d have chosen arts or philosophy. The care I feel for the existence of the German people compelled me to this activity.6

Was Hitler’s aesthetic-philosophic cri de cœur authentic, absolute, or merely a pose, a bid for posterity? It was genuine. He was by nature an artist. He dwells in art, he is it. He openly avows that beauty is the highest ideal.

Budapest is by far the most beautiful city on the Danube. But I am determined to make Linz a German town on the Danube which surpasses it, and by so doing to prove that the artistic sense of the Germans is superior to that of the Magyars. As regards bridges, I intend, in contradistinction to Budapest, to have one suspension bridge in Linz. I become daily more enthusiastic about the beautifying of Linz. I think it is the reaction of the artistic sense in me. In making Linz the new metropolis of the Danube, it should infuriate the Hungarians… The Reich must get a worthy capital. At the moment Budapest is the most beautiful city in the world, and there is no town in the whole German Reich that can even compare with it. The House of Parliament, the Citadel, the Cathedral and the bridges, seen in the shimmer of the setting sun, present a spectacle of beauty unsurpassed in the world. Vienna, too, is impressive, but it is not on a river. And all these beauties have been built by German architects. Berlin must follow suit [Budapest] and I know we shall make a magnificent city of it… We shall only be repaying the Hungarians in their own coin, once the war is over, for having everywhere and so promptly taken advantage of circumstances and pulled their chestnuts out of the fire… The Hungarians have always been poseurs. In war they are like the British and the Poles; war to them is an affair which concerns the Government and to which they go like oxen to the slaughter.7

At this point I shall not suppress a sigh. How noble, making Linz the new metropolis of the Danube. If I understand anything of Hitler’s seemingly open- hearted and benevolent humanity and all the loftiness of soul, it is that the main pillar supporting the Nazi temple of the muses is not Mozart’s Kleine Nachtmusik but the thunder of Panzer cannons. Let us be blunt about it. Hitler’s life was over as early as 3 September 1939 with the declaration of war by England. His fate was inevitably sealed. At the time, the Fuhrer just stared in front of him for several minutes and then asked, “What now?” At that time he still sat in his opulent study at the Reich Chancellery. Now, in April 1945, he sat beneath the portrait of Frederick the Great in the musty, dark bunker of the same building.

Physically, Hitler presented a dreadful sight. His legs shaking, his hand quivering, he lapsed into brooding, saliva dripping from his mouth, complaining that humanity was too weak and too wicked to be worthwhile going on living without him. “He lay completely torpid, filled with only one thought – chocolate and cake. Whereas in the past he had at most three pieces of cake, he now had the platter handed to him three times, and heaped his own plate each time.”8

The war rages outside the Fuhrerbunker, the Third Reich is cracking, the Soviet artillery is pulverising Berlin, and Hitler is gorging himself on chocolate and cake.

On 18 October 1941, Hitler boasted:

When one enters the Reich Chancellery, one should have the feeling that one is visiting the master of the world. It is only thus that we shall succeed in eclipsing our only rival in the world, Rome. If I try to gauge my work, I must consider, first of all, that I’ve contributed to the triumph of the primacy of race. Secondly, I’ve given German supremacy a solid cultural foundation… Berlin will one day be the capital of the world.

On 29 April 1945, Hitler dictates his Private Will and Testament:

As I did not consider that I could take responsibility, during the years of struggle, of contracting a marriage, I have now decided, before the closing of my earthly career, to take as my wife that girl who, after many years of faithful friendship, entered, of her own free will, the practically besieged town in order to share her destiny with me. At her own desire she goes as my wife with me into death. It will compensate us for what we both lost through my work in service of my people…

My pictures, in the collections which I have bought in the course of years, have never been collected for private purposes, but only for the extension of a gallery in my home town of Linz a.d. Donau. It is my most sincere wish that this bequest may be duly executed. I nominate as my Executor my most faithful Party comrade, Martin Bormann. He is given full authority to make all decisions…

I myself and my wife – in order to escape the disgrace of deposition or capitulation – choose death. It is our wish to be burnt immediately on the spot where I carried out the greatest part of my daily work in the course of twelve years’ service to my people.

Given in Berlin, 29 April 1945, 4:00 o’clock. (Sd.) A. Hitler9

Before he took his own life, Hitler issued his infamous Nero Command, March 1945. It states his intention to create “a desert, void of civilisation. Total destruction of Germany.” With ruthless fury he turned against his own people who had to perish because they were no longer strong enough and willing to shed their own blood to ensure the survival and victory of the Fuhrer. The nihilism in Hitler wrote letters of blood on the path he followed and his folly thought that truth was proved by blood. But blood is the worst guide to truth; blood poisons and transforms the racist philosophy to delusion and hatred of the heart. He no longer knew any moral boundaries; a man to whom the end of his own life meant the end of Germany.

Germany and its people must be destroyed, but not “my pictures”. At all cost, artworks, taken from the Jews and conquered people, must be saved. Save art, not Germany.

Look homeward, Death. The Roman poet Ovid, lyrical about the dear links of love, wrote:

But yet in truth one must await
A man’s last day, nor count him fortunate
Before he dies and the last rites are paid.10

True it is. All the other actions of our life must be tried and tested by this last act. It is the master day, the day that is the judge of all others. On the master day, Hitler married his mistress Eva Braun. As they were signing the marriage certificate, a nervous Eva started to write her maiden name, then crossed the first letter B and wrote “Eva Hitler, née Braun”.

The marriage ceremony was the ceremony of death. No bridesmaid or best man, but Death that attended the marriage ceremony. In choosing a wife, Hitler chose death. The mistress, choosing a husband, chose death. In life, Eva had a lover. In death, she had a husband. The Fuhrer’s authority had to be obeyed in all things, great or small, just or unjust alike, in life and in death. Unwept, unloved, alone, pitilessly used in the bunker, Hitler led Eva Braun not to the altar but to Death. Marrying “that girl” shall hurl Hitler out of the throne of blood into oblivion. And for “that girl”, O grave, my bridal chamber. Gasoline poured on the corpse of Mr and Mrs Hitler is the last libation.

Hitler wanted to be the Master of Europe and willed his end as charred flesh and bones without mind. He died defiant, without a word of regret, remorse or “links of love”, with his belief in himself as a man of destiny intact. As the hour of Death approached, Hitler gave his two women secretaries capsules of poison to use if they wanted to when the barbarian Russians would break in. He was sorry, he said, not to be able to give them a better farewell gift.

Look homeward, Death. After death comes farce. Bodies of the newlyweds next to each other. Eva was on the Fuhrer’s right, as in the marriage ceremony. Berlin in flame was the pyre, and the Russians firing their “Katyusha” rockets provided the funeral march. Gasoline soaked bodies burst into flame. A smell of burning flesh spread through the air, as in the vicinity of a crematory oven in a concentration camp. The one who decreed the incineration of the Jews, signed his own Will and Testament, ordering his own incineration. No tears would drown his horrid funeral flames. The Final Solution, which overlapped itself, had fallen on Hitler himself. Everyone stood at attention. Then they stepped forward one by one and raised their arms in Hitler Salute. Thus spoke the Nazi instinct of the most mindless and debased, the enslaved instinct, and the sickness unto death. After Hitler’s body had burned, SS officers were happy that they could greet each other by saying “good evening”. The slavish “Heil Hitler” greeting was gone as was the Chief.

Father Schwarz predicted that young “Itler” would not go to Heaven. For Hitler the whole notion of Heaven was useless: away with it! He translated his own afterlife into nonreligious terms:

If I enter a church it is to find beauty in which I am interested… I shall never come to terms with the Christian lie [afterlife]. I shall feel I’m in my proper place if, after my death, I find myself, together with people like me, on some sort of Olympus. I shall be in the company of the most enlightened spirits of all times… I don’t prevent anyone from praying silently. But let nobody waste prayers on me that I shall not have asked for. If my presence on earth is providential, I owe it to superior will. But I owe nothing to the Church that traffics in the salvation of souls, and I find it really too cruel.11

Twilight of the Gods. Gotterdammerung. The Soviet victor put the charred remains of Hitler in a cigar box. What transforming fate. What glad tidings for suffering humanity. The earthly remains of the master of the world, who had no hope in the Beyond, all this contained in a cigar box. It is a joyful, a welcome spectacle which has opened up before me: I have drawn back the curtain on the depravity of Hitler. Stalin was so obsessed with Hitler that he sent a trophy brigade to Berlin to search for anything connected with the Fuhrer. His skull, his uniform, and Eva Braun’s underwear – they were all in Stalin’s special vault in the Kremlin.

Hitler of course saw his life differently. At one time, he had solemnly announced:

No matter when Providence will end my life, not even at the last moment will I regret to have led this fight. On the contrary, I will be able to tell myself: It was a life worth living! It was not a life of cowardice, indolence, and restraint. Instead, it was a life that will one day hold its own before German history!

One should not let oneself be misled. In Hitler’s Reich only graves create a homeland. And graves hold their silence before German history. Hitler’s final hours are the defining, iconic death of a tyrant. In my consciousness and memory, the death of Stalin is the other defining, iconic death. In March 1953, Stalin had a stroke. His daughter Svetlana wrote:

The death agony was horrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed the very last moment, he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane and perhaps angry, and full of the fear of death. We all stood frozen and silent for a few minutes, it seemed like ages. Then members of the Politburo, Beria in the front, rushed for the door.12

His suffering, she wrote, came because “God grants an easy death only to the just”. But she still loved him. As his body was removed for autopsy, she wrote, “It was for the first time I had seen my father naked. It was a beautiful body. It didn’t look old or as if he’d been sick at all… I realised that the body that had given me life no longer had life or breath in it, yet I would go on living.” In the talismanic wake of the Apology and the Phaedo, Socrates is ugly of body and beautiful of mind or soul. If we accept Svetlana’s definition of her father, Stalin is beautiful of body and ugly of mind or soul.

It may surprise us that Hitler and Stalin, who wrote in blood the darkest pages of history, had a love-hate relationship. Molotov, who boasted that he and Stalin grew up in the spirit of Bolshevism, “in the spirit of truth”, said Hitler never “understood Marx”. When asked whether Stalin trusted Hitler and that the Fuhrer deceived him with the pact of 1939, Molotov replied:

Such a naïve Stalin. No. Stalin saw through it all. Stalin trusted Hitler? He didn’t trust even his own people. And there were reasons for that. Hitler fooled Stalin? As a result of such deception, Hitler had to poison himself, and Stalin became the head of half the world!13

As to the question who was more severe, Lenin or Stalin, Molotov’s answer is simple. “Lenin, of course. I recall how he reproached Stalin for his softness. ‘What kind of dictatorship do we have? We have a milk-and-honey power, and not a dictatorship… What could be more concrete? Shot on the spot and that’s that.’ It was outside the law but we had to do it. It was a dictatorship, a super dictatorship.”

Consider this interaction. Hitler: “I’m sure history will remember Stalin’s name forever.” Molotov: “I don’t doubt it.” Hitler: “So we, Stalin and I, should meet. For I hope history will remember me too.” Molotov gives us a revealing glimpse into the mind of Stalin. In February 1923 Lenin took a turn for the worst, and he asked Stalin to bring him some poison. Stalin refused to administer the poison even though he had promised. “Even if you insist, I cannot do it”, Stalin said.

Remember Hitler giving capsules of poison to his secretaries as farewell gift. The eternal recurrence of tyrants and poison. Like Hitler, Stalin also stands in opposition to all free intellectual values. He can use only the morbid-evil mind as the normative mind, he takes side of everything base, he declares a war on man, against the supremacy of the human spirit. Because terror belongs to the essence of Stalin, every enlightened, honest, human road to knowledge has to be repudiated by the Party as a forbidden road. With Stalin in power there commences a mortal hostility to all integrity, to all loftiness of soul, to discipline of spirit, to all open- hearted and benevolent humanity.

I draw the comparison of Hitler and Stalin in the use of poison not for its shock value. It draws attention to their lying for the sake of lying, to cruelty for the sake of cruelty, to their inability to look straight and act straight. Both are tyrants because they are evil: their instinct demands that truth shall not come into its own at any point. There are days when I am haunted by a feeling blacker than the blackest melancholy – Stalin’s contempt of Bukharin, a friend turned adversary.

In prison, awaiting death, Bukharin writes a very secret, personal letter to Stalin (10 December 1937):

I am writing for your personal information. I cannot leave this life without writing to you these last lines because I am in the grip of torments which you should know about… At the plenum I spoke the truth and nothing but the truth, but no one believed me… There is something great and bold about the political idea of a general purge. When I was hallucinating, I saw you several times and once I saw Nadezhda Sergeevna [Stalin’s late wife]. She approached me and said: “What have they done with you, Nikolai Ivanovich? I’ll tell Iosif [Stalin] to bail you out… Oh, Lord, if only there were some device which would have made it possible for you to see my soul flayed and ripped open! If only you could see how I am attached to you, body and soul…”

If I am to receive the death sentence, then I implore you beforehand, I entreat you, by all that you hold dear, not to have me shot. Let me drink poison in my cell instead (let me have morphine so that I can fall asleep and never wake up)… Have pity on me! Surely you will understand – knowing me as well as you do… So if the verdict is death, let me have a cup of morphine. I implore you.

Stalin denied the cup of morphine to Bukharin. See how the darkness of the heaven over man had increased in proportion to the growth of Stalin’s tyrannical power. After Stalin’s death, under a sheet of newspaper in his desk, five telling letters were found. One was Bukharin’s last plea: “Koba [Stalin’s nickname], why do you need me to die?”

When the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sentenced to three years’ exile, his wife Nadezhda and fellow poet Boris Pasternak appealed to Bukharin. He wrote to Stalin telling him that Mandelstam was a “first class” poet but not “quite normal”. He reminded Stalin that “Poets are always right, history is on their side”. Stalin called Pasternak. “Mandelstam’s case is being reviewed. Everything will be all right”, Stalin said. Pasternak, excited and intrigued, said he wanted to come for a talk. “About what?” Stalin asked. “About life and death”, said Pasternak. The baffled Stalin rang off.

Life and death. The death of Stalin. As a teenager in cold war Hungary, I have vivid memories of Stalin’s death. I copy from my class notes taken in the gymnasium in Esztergom (1953): “In the cross-winds, looking into the night, stands the helmsman, Stalin. People go on working, plant apple trees, nurse their children, read poems, or peacefully sleep. But he stands at the helm.”

When the world-shattering news reached Kesztölc that the great helmsman left us, the local party secretary was passing in front of our house, crying in tearful voice, “What shall become of us? Our father left us orphans.” My grandfather, standing at the gate, turned around, spit and muttered: “You filthy swine. What a pity. An orphan, ha.” The officially decreed mourning for the fear-inspiring tyrant was expressed for every eye to see. A black framed poster of Stalin appeared in the window of our neighbour’s barbershop.

At night, grandfather removed the poster. Cut it up, doused it with gasoline, and burned the image of Stalin at the dungheap. The picture of the smiling, fatherly, watchful “father” turned into flakes of fire and ashes scattered on the dungheap. Sic transit Gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world. Ashes to a cigar-box, ashes on a dungheap.

One has to regret that no Shakespeare stood in the Reich Chancellery garden, watching the Viking Funeral of Hitler, flames and salutes, or witness grandfather’s mock funeral rites at the dungheap. I mean someone who could feel the thrilling fascination of such combination of the grotesque, the sick and the vulgar. Equally fascinating is the question of how Hitler or Stalin had become what they were. When young, Stalin aspired to be a poet. When young, Hitler defied his father and became an artist.

The two mass murderers of the twentieth century were bibliophiles. In 1910 the Tsarist secret police noted, the exiled Stalin visited the library in Vologda seventeen times in three months. By the time he was thirty, he had read extensively classical, Western and Russian literature, philosophy and political theory. He read avidly Machiavelli’s Prince, had it translated into Russian, had the first Russian edition of Bismarck’s collected works, making a number of corrections and comments in the margin of the introductory article. He even read Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Visitors were amazed to find Stalin in his Kremlin office perusing Plato in the original. His personal library contained no less than 25,000 volumes. Some of the books contain his markings, marginal notes and underlines. Stalin’s personal library included Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Maupassant, Baudelaire and Anatole France among others. He loved Whitman and could recite him from memory. In fact, Stalin in 1924 said: “Our philosophy is not ‘cosmic grief’, our philosophy was rather neatly put by the American Walt Whitman: ‘We are alive. Our scarlet blood boils with the fire of unused strength.’”

Pasternak was a translator of Shakespeare, Goethe, English Romantic poets, Paul Verlaine and Rilke. But he refused to translate Stalin’s poems from his native Georgian. Young Stalin, the poet. One might even find reason for regretting, in hindsight, Stalin leaving Parnassus for Proletariat; poetry for revolutionary politics. We should not be misled. The bloodiest tyrant of the twentieth century, next to Hitler, Stalin was an exceptionally well read and classically educated man of letters with a surprising range of knowledge. He always loved poetry. Mandelstam was right when he said, “In Russia, poetry is really valued, and here they kill for it”. What a paradox it is. Stalin admired and identified with Whitman who, aspiring to be both a new Homer and the American Bible, is the poetic voice of the nation. His poems, Democracy, En Masse, One Identity, they are long sums and multiplication, of which the answer is invariably MYSELF. The universe, in short, adds up to one. One. Which is Walt Whitman.

Stalin was quite fascinated by things English. Living in London, April–May 1907, in East End, he spent his time in churches listening to sermons; the best way to learn English. There was no money to pay for the delegates to the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The American tycoon Joseph Fels, owner of the Fels-Naphta Soap Co., was willing to lend £1,700 to Lenin and Stalin. Lenin accepted the loan but insisted that every revolutionary signed the agreement to repay the loan by his revolutionary nom de plume. Lenin signed as “Vladimir” and Stalin as “Vassily from Baku”.

Young Stalin was something of a Romantic too. When his first wife Kato Svanidze died, at her funeral, he gestured at the open coffin. “This creature”, he said, “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feeling for humans.” He placed his hand over his heart. At the funeral, Stalin threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to pull him out. If only the men had known what they pulled out.

Stalin took keen interest in Machiavelli, the first modern author who spoke of the new art of politics or the “art of the state”. Stalin fused the two together into an explicit and concrete formula which views terror and evil entirely as instruments of political action. He took to heart Machiavelli’s recommendation that the prince or vozhd must read histories, and in them consider the actions of leaders of men, to see how they conducted themselves in wars; examine the causes of their victory and defeats, to be able to escape the latter and to imitate the former. An effective, successful leader must be a good reader of history. Interestingly, if history does not have on file the exact solutions to a contemporary problem, it lends itself by the suggestiveness of similarity, to devising new solutions.

Stalin especially loved books on European history. In the journal Srednaya Istoria [Medieval History, 1874], Stalin read about Matthias Corvinus (1443–1490). When Matthias was the king of Hungary, humanism was the ruling intellectual force of the day. What caught Stalin’s attention was Mathias the lover of books and his magnificent library at Buda. The tasks of the Renaissance prince were exclusively confined to the administration of justice and the maintenance of peace. The just, the humanist, the mild king surrounded by wise counsellors and keeping within the confines of the law, remained the ideal of Matthias. Impressed, Stalin wrote on the blank space of the journal:

Mátyás után nincs igazság!

And yet, Stalin could sign the death sentence of László Rajk with one hand and caress Matthias with the other. Ambidextrous!

The legendary Hungarian proverb, “Meghalt Mátyás, oda az igazság” [Matthias has died, and with him Justice] made a great impression on Stalin. He also took note of Matthias’ particularly strong orientation to Florence. It is confirmed by Machiavelli:

Pope Pius II decided to rouse the Christians against the Turks, so all princes promised either money or men; especially Matthias King of Hungary and Charles Duke of Burgundy promised to be with him in person, since the Pope had made them leaders of the crusade… But Matthias and Charles did not appear in the city of Ancona, where the army was directed to assemble… Then the Pope, old and sick, died in the midst of these laboirs of vexations. After his death everybody returned home.14

As an avid reader of history, Stalin knew that because Pope Pius II had sent the consecrated flag to Matthias, who was to be the general supreme of the Christian armies, many praised the Hungarian king for his decisive move following the Pope’s death, but none was forthcoming. There is no doubt that Matthias was a figure of particular attraction to Stalin. Stalin read in original Plato’s Republic. He was familiar with Plato’s famous statement [The Republic, 473d]:

Unless communities have philosophers as kings, or the people who are currently called kings and rulers practice philosophy with enough integrity – in other words, unless political power and philosophy coincide, and all the people with their diversity of talents who currently head in different directions towards either government or philosophy have those doors shut firmly in their faces – there can be no end to political troubles.

No philosopher-king made his appearance in Hitler’s Reich Chancellery or in Stalin’s gilded Kremlin. Had Stalin lived up to the ideals of Matthias, Truth and Justice, or make Plato’s love of wisdom his guide and lodestar, he wouldn’t have paved the road to hell on earth. Stalin admired Matthias the Just but lacked the moral integrity to make it visible. Truth travels silently in the night and requires to be caught by the searchlight of moral consciousness to be visible.

Moral consciousness and the human soul with its frontiers, the compass of human inner experience, the heights, depths and secrets of this experience, the entire history of consciousness and soul – all are left untouched by Stalin. The mind turned inward, soulward, we associate with Socrates, not Stalin.

The criminal, evil conduct of Stalin obeys the ancient maxim fac et excusa. The deeds in fact are free to recur because the excuses are potentially limitless. Stalin is unapologetic. Communism is hell and we, who “grew up in the spirit of Bolshevism, in the spirit of truth”, play by the rule of hell. Communism, that fearful long night of blood and death. Art, unknit that sorrow-wreathed knot.

When I think back to my years of growing up in the Cold War years in Hungary, I realise this process of naming evil, though it began centuries ago, has accelerated enormously during my own lifetime. I have written parts of the Memoirs by thinking about the sort of experience that used to go under the name of evil.

I have been quarrying my wartime experience out of the black night of war, like a coal miner in his pit, which I was, a long, long time ago.

Look homeward, son of Hungary, and remember.

1 Hitler’s Table Talk, 698–99.

2 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 vols. (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), 2:521–22.

3 Hitler’s Table Talk, 605, 188.

4 Final Entries 1945. The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978), 44.

5 Hitler’s Table Talk, 338–39.

6 Max Domarus, Hitler, 4:3065.

7 Hitler’s Table Talk, 445–46, 650.

8 Albert Zoller, Hitler privat: Erlebnisbericht seiner Geheimsekretarin (Dusseldorf, 1949), 150.

9 Robert M. Edsel – Bret Witter, The Monuments Men (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2010), 333–34.

10 Ovid, Metamorphoses, III, 136–38.

11 Hitler’s Table Talk, 342–43.

12 Nicholas Thompson, “My Friend, Stalin’s Daughter”, The New Yorker, (31 March 2014), 33.

13 Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1993), 12.

14 Machiavelli, The Chief Works and Others, translated by Allan Gilbert, 3 vols. (Duke University Press, 1965), 3:1349.

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