Several masterpieces in several languages describe the totalitarianism that devastated 20th-century Europe, and nobody could have anticipated that at this late hour yet another might be discovered, or, more exactly, recovered. A Nation Adrift was first published in Hungarian in 1946 in the brief interlude between Nazism and Communism, and it was more or less stillborn because few non-Hungarians could read the language, fewer still cared what had happened to Hungary, and virtually nobody knew who Miksa Fenyő was. This English translation is the work of Mario, one of Miksa’s sons and by now a professor in the United States. In an affectionate introduction, he says all that has to be said: When it comes to intelligence and wit, “my father was far above average.”
In the Hungary of his day, Miksa Fenyő was a public figure, founder and editor of the country’s foremost highbrow magazine. He had also been elected to Parliament and, having the courage of his convictions, in 1934 he published an essay criticizing the democratic politicians for their failure to stand up to Hitler, with force if necessary. When the German army and the Gestapo took over Hungary in March 1944, he was 62 and a marked man. Besides, he was Jewish at a time when Jews were compelled to sew a yellow star onto their clothing and daub their houses with yellow paint. “Under the very eyes of the government,” he writes, “the Gestapo is picking victims by the hundreds.”
Risking their own lives, a couple by the name of Dessauer hid him and his wife, Ria, in the maid’s room of their house in Budapest. Passed off as Christians, their children, including the ten-year-old Mario, were given shelter separately in another part of the city. Every day, Fenyő kept himself busy writing up daily experience and examining his fears and hopes. Looking out of the window in his wartime hiding place, he could see the other people living in the building and going about their business. Though friendly, the boiler man was a Nazi who could take it into his head to denounce him. Nevertheless he would go down to the air-raid shelter and now and again might set out for a walk and even call on some friend. The siren was a constant reminder of Allied bombing. “The usual symptoms: My heart is pounding louder, my hands are shaking more than usual. . . . I get the feeling that they are aiming at this very house, another second and they will find the target. . . . I do not want to perish. . . . Yet I approve of the bombings, provided it does not harm so-and-so.”
Nostalgic memories of “the good old world,” the village where he was born and brought up, consoled him. Frequently he recalls pre-war travels in Italy researching for the three-volume guidebook he intended to write for discriminating people. He reads four languages and quotes Latin, Friedrich Schiller, and Endre Ady, best of contemporary Hungarian poets and one of his greatest friends. At the same time, he has to record, “one sits here impotently, awaiting the fate of hundreds of thousands, including one’s own. . . . It is hard to believe that what happens to me should be of no interest to the whole world.” Mrs. Dessauer tells him that on her way up from Lake Balaton she had seen a freight train of cattle cars jam-packed with Jews. Gendarmes were seated in the first and last wagons, to prevent even a single Jew from avoiding the gas chamber. Another witness saw the Jews being deported from a place called “Balassagyarmat.” “An old Jewish woman with varicose veins was moving more slowly than the rest, so the gendarme thrust the bayonet into her leg, making the blood spurt. A dying man was thrown into one of the wagons where he died instantly. The corpse remained in the car for six hours, so that the children — since there was a bunch of children — get used to the odour of death.”
The consequence of total war was the total abolition of moral standards. Murder had become the basic principle of behavior and sin was a virtue. Supporters of the regime claimed to act on principles of beauty, goodness, and justice when in reality they were responsible for what Fenyő habitually calls “filth and crime.” One line of argument is that the German people were Hitler’s accomplice; they showed no signs of humanity but professed that “war is a normal and desirable state.” Germany is therefore beyond redemption. A devout humanist himself, Fenyő comes in the end to the opposite conclusion, that holding the whole nation responsible for mass murder would be as terrible as their “filth and crime.”
Patriot that he was, Fenyő had to face the fact that Hungary was indeed Hitler’s accomplice. He felt nothing but scorn for the politicians who had compromised the country. Hitler had restored territory that the Hungarians felt the great powers had assigned to neighboring countries unjustly. Here was Hitler’s New Europe, but gratitude for being in it came at a cost. Hungary was obliged to participate in the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. As the Red Army slowly but remorselessly fought its way back to Hungary, the Germans turned the country over to the so-called Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazi movement.
The final hundred or so pages give an incomparable picture of a country, a society, a culture, brought by totalitarian rivalry to a state of irredeemable collapse. Corpses lay in the streets and choked the Danube. Homo homini lupus, as the Roman proverb has it: Man is a wolf to man. Fenyő’s conclusion that Russian aspirations were no threat to the Western half of Europe was pure wish fulfillment. In the face of Soviet reality, he left post-war Hungary and died abroad and forgotten.
This article appears as “Witness to Catastrophe” in the October 14, 2019, print edition of National Review.