Lee Congdon

Koestler’s Hungarian Identity

In his superb book, Budapest 1900, John Lukacs wrote that Koestler “ceased to consider [himself] Hungarian at all.”1 Koestler’s biographer, David Cesarani, seems to agree, though not, like Lukacs, because he believes his subject to have been a cosmopolitan; according to him, “Koestler cannot be understood except as a Jew.”2 It is true, as Lukacs suggests, that many consider Koestler to have been the quintessential cosmopolitan; he mastered several languages and lived in many different lands. It is also true, on the other hand, that, especially when young, he was a fervent Zionist and that he later campaigned actively for the creation of a Jewish state. And yet he never thought of himself as a Jew. Like other assimilated Jews—Henri Bergson comes to mind—he did not wish to dissociate himself from the Jews in their hour of greatest suffering and need. Until the Jews had their own state, a sanctuary to which they could repair, he could not rest, could not feel himself free of responsibility, free to be Hungarian.

Eventually, we know, Koestler made England his final destination, but despite the fame and fortune he attained there, he often spoke of his loneliness and isolation. In a 1964 or 1965 letter to Paul Ignotus and his wife, for example, he wrote that he was “as lonely in this country as you are.”3 He possessed a Central European mind and heart and only felt at home with other Central Europeans, especially Hungarians. His principal link to things Hungarian was George Mikes, the distinguished humorist whom he met in 1952. The two men quickly became friends and, at Koestler’s insistence, spoke to each other in Hungarian.

In his memoir of their friendship, Mikes wrote that he was Koestler’s “Hungarian friend: not just a friend who happened to be Hungarian, but someone who had a special function, played a role and fulfilled a need.”4 In addition to being a Hungarian conversationist, Mikes was a source of information concerning Hungarians whom Koestler knew or had known. At the time of their first meeting, Koestler was putting the finishing touches on The Invisible Writing, the second volume of his autobiography in which he had penned an affectionate portrait of the deeply disturbed but talented Attila József. He hoped that Mikes could verify some details concerning Attila’s life and that he might have a photograph; he did, and Koestler published it in the chapter of the book devoted to the famous suicide and other Hungarians he had known.

Koestler also turned to Mikes for word concerning another Hungarian friend, Andor Németh. He was distressed when, on 5 December 1953, Mikes wrote to report that Németh had died in Budapest after passing his last years as a penniless non-person.5 Koestler took what comfort he could from the fact that he was going to give his friend a measure of immortality in The Invisible Writing. There he told how he and Németh had been “linked in an intimate and bizarre friendship which included literary partnership, a shared taste for the absurd sides of existence, and shared misery. During my [1933] stay in Budapest, and on later occasions in Switzerland and in Paris, we were inseparable, and were known by our mutual friends as ‘the firm.’”6

They had met in Vienna in 1921 and, in part because of a common interest in psychoanalysis, became fast friends. On the rare occasions when Koestler was able to visit Budapest, they enjoyed time together. During one such visit, Németh came up with an idea for a detective story on which the two collaborated. Subsequently they wrote at least one and perhaps as many as four others; in 1997, a Hungarian publisher issued them under the title Nagyvárosi történetek.7 In a 1967 interview that he granted—in Hungarian—to the Voice of America, Koestler was moved to say that “az irodalom kritikát, az irodalom méltánylását nagyrészben tőle [from Németh] tanultam”8

The interviewer on that occasion was Paul Ignotus, son of the famous editor of Nyugat and co-editor, with Attila, of the interwar Szép Szó. Koestler had met him in the 1930s and, when the elder Ignotus died in 1949, had warned him not to return to Budapest for the funeral. Ignotus ignored the warning and, as a result, ended up in one of Mátyás Rákosi’s prisons. When, after his release in 1956, Ignotus returned to England, he and Koestler renewed their friendship, although Koestler told Michael Josselson, the mastermind behind the anti-communist Congress for Cultural Freedom, that Ignotus “never was an intimate friend of mine.”9 He made the point because he was attempting—successfully as it turned out—to persuade the Congress to support Ignotus while he worked on a history of Hungary.

Ignotus was the Congress’s principal Hungarian contact and, with its support, he helped to organize a 1957 gathering of Hungarian-born intellectuals, the purpose of which was to reflect upon the Hungarian Revolution of the previous year. Koestler had been deeply moved by that epochal event and he was seated at the head table. In fluent Hungarian, he addressed those assembled.

Az emigráns írónak példátlanul felelős missziója van. Nem a propaganda-

akciót értem ez alatt…mindez nagyon fontos, nagyon fontos, de az emigráns

írónak való missziója súlyosabb és több: ő képviseli a rab nemzet kultúrá-

jának kontinuitását. Ő az őrzője a múlt hagyatékának , ő védi ennek

a hagyatéknak igaz lényegét a jelen és a múlt hamisítói ellen.10

Not the least reason for Koestler’s sense of mission was the post-revolutionary detention of his friend Gyula Háy, with whom he shared a communist past. Háy was a talented playwright whose Gott, Kaiser und Bauer was something of a sensation in Weimar Germany, where he was living when he met Koestler. In a double civil ceremony performed in Zurich in 1935, the two men married their respective lovers before going their separate ways. Soon thereafter, Háy accepted an invitation from the International League of Revolutionary Theaters to visit the USSR for a provisional period of three months, following which his wife and new daughter could join him. Not long into what became a ten-year stay, he concluded that his hosts had no interest in his creative work and that, indeed, anytime he put pen to paper he was putting himself at risk. By the time the Moscow Trials opened in 1936, he knew what he had let himself in for:

Any one of us could disappear at any time, never to be seen again. It

was simply beyond one’s powers to grasp the full extent of that terrible

man-trap and of the weird, unreal danger that hung over everyone’s

head without the least logical connection with his activities, character,

convictions, and views, whatever form they might take.11

Háy was one of the lucky ones; he survived and returned to Hungary near the end of World War II. His communist faith had, however, weakened and in the months leading up to the 1956 Revolution he was one of the most outspoken members of the literary opposition. After Soviet forces suppressed the Revolution, he was arrested. In 1960 the Kádár government amnestied him but blocked his return to literary life; in 1964, therefore, he left Hungary for Switzerland, where he lived out his life.

The letters that Háy addressed to Koestler from his final destination are moving tributes to a long friendship. Writing shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, for example, Háy told of his decision to write an autobiography, to be entitled Geboren 1900. When, with Koestler’s help, he was able to arrange for an English translation, he was ecstatic. “Für mich,” he wrote to his friend, “bedeutet dieses Buch einen neuen Durchbruch in späten, vielleicht spätesten Jahren meines Lebens. Und es bedeutet auch einen stillen Sieg unsrer bewährten Freundschaft. Ich glaube, ich bin sogar dir gegenüber zu scheu, um wirklich ausdrücken zu können, wie es mich freut, dass du—eben zu diesem meinem Buch—das Vorwort schreiben wirst.”12

Koestler’s willingness to write a foreword to Háy’s autobiography was truly a gesture of friendship. It violated not only his rule not to write forewords, but his even more important vow not to write any more about politics. In the foreword, he wrote of the role that writers, especially Háy, played in the Hungarian Revolution, identified Bertolt Brecht as his friend’s only rival among playwrights of the European Left, and praised the autobiography for its restraint and humor.

Born 1900 appeared in England in 1974; an American publisher issued it in 1975, the year Háy died. On 23 April of that year, Háy wrote a last letter to Koestler—in Hungarian rather than his customary German. He was entering the hospital on 8 May he told his friend, and he did not expect to come out alive. “Meg szeretném neked most, bucsuzóul, mondani, hogy barátságod ezekben a hosszu évtizedekben milyen sokat jelentett számomra és hogy mennyire sajnálom, hogy a mi életünk tragikus fordulatai nem engedtek meg több találkozást. Ennek ellenére mindig igen közelnek éreztelek. Szeretnék neked további életedhez sikert, egészséget és megelégedettséget kivánni.”13

Of all Koestler’s Hungarian friends, however, Michael Polanyi was the closest—at least with respect to intellectual and existential affinities. Both men argued against scientific reductionism and any effort to undermine the integrity of moral principles. Although neither embraced traditional creeds, both were life-long religious seekers. Both, too, favored Jewish assimilation. In an address Polanyi delivered to the Manchester Branch of the Trades Advisory Council of the Board of Deputies of British Jews on 24 September 1942, he made clear his firm commitment to the path of assimilation.

In an effort to escape the confines of the Ghetto, he told his audience, nineteenth-century Jews began to assume new, non-Jewish, identities. They did so above all, he insisted, because of “a profound urge to embrace the greater causes of mankind,” to join European—Christian—culture.14 In that endeavor they proved to be eminently successful, as the names of Heine, Mendelssohn, Ricardo, Marx, and Disraeli (all baptized) attested. At the same time, they gained an acceptance in national communities that they had never before known. In Polanyi’s view, therefore, Zionism represented a retreat into isolation, an alienation from Western culture. Hitler’s regime, which he confidently and correctly predicted would not survive the war, had interrupted the process of assimilation, but only temporarily. None of this, one should add, meant that Polanyi was ashamed of being Jewish; in fact, he deplored the fact that, in his presence, his non-Jewish friends carefully avoided any mention of his Jewish origins.

It is probably fair to say that Polanyi thought of himself as a European first and a Hungarian second. But for Koestler, the order seems to have been reversed. He was eager, we know, to show just how Hungarian he was. Nothing witnesses to this more forcefully than the existentially revealing book entitled The Thirteenth Tribe that he published in 1976, a year after he had celebrated his seventieth birthday. Borrowing liberally from earlier work by Miklós Bartha, Abraham Poliak, and Hugo von Kutschera, he argued that most Eastern, and hence most modern, Jews were descended from the Khazars, a people of Turkish stock who converted to Judaism around 740 A.D. It followed, he concluded, that anti-Semitism was based upon a serious misunderstanding; the Jews were not, in fact, of Semitic origin.

As usual, Koestler managed to present a plausible case for a theory that most scholars, and most Jews, rejected. Less obvious, because less important, to his many critics was Koestler’s attempt to link the Khazars with the Magyars. If the Khazar thesis were to hold up, he wrote, the Jews were “more closely related to the Hun, Uigur and Magyar tribes than to the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”15 The problem of the Magyars’ origin is certainly murky enough to permit speculation, and Koestler loved nothing better. Early in the Christian era, he reported, the Magyars migrated from the Urals to the region between the Don and Kuban rivers, in the neighborhood of the Khazars, by whom they were subjected. In due course, “several Khazar tribes joined the Magyars and profoundly transformed their ethnic character.”16

When Árpád led his people into the Carpathian Basin in 896, he brought along the Kabars, a dissident Khazar tribe. Moreover, in the following century, the reigning Magyar ruler invited more Khazar emigrants to settle in his domain. “The Khazar origin of the numerically and socially dominant element in the Jewish population of Hungary during the Middle Ages is thus relatively well documented.”17 What all of this means, if true, is that non-Jewish and Jewish Hungarians are closely related, not only by history but by blood. In fact, the Jews as Khazars would seem to be the senior partners.

Whether or not such a claim can be believed—it is unlikely that it can ever be proved—is a matter for scholars in the field to decide. For present purposes, it is Koestler’s attempt to portray Hungarian Jews, himself included, as true Magyars that is significant, for it testifies to his firm belief in his Hungarian identity.


1 John Lukacs, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), p. 141.
2 David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (New York: The Free Press, 1998), p. 5.
3 Letter of Arthur Koestler to Paul and Flo Ignotus, late 1964 or early 1965; Arthur Koestler Archive, Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library, Edinburgh, Scotland. Ms 2385/1 (145).
4 George Mikes, Arthur Koestler: The Story of a Friendship (London: André Deutsch, 1983), p. 14.
5 Letter of George Mikes to Arthur Koestler, 5 December 1953, Koestler Archive, Ms 2378/4 (126).
6 Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing: An Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1954), p. 168.
7 See Arthur Koestler and Andor Németh, Nagyvárosi történetek (Budapest: Polgár Könyvek, 1997).
8 See Erzsébet Vezér (ed.), “Ignotus Pál interjúja Koestler Arturral,” Kritika, no. 12 (1988), p. 9. For Németh’s portrait of Koestler, see Andor Németh, A szélen behajtva: Valogatott írások (Budapest: Magvető Könyvkiadó, 1973), pp. 649, 651, 653-55, 661-62, 671-72, 691-93, 695, 704.
9 Letter of Arthur Koestler to Michael Josselson, 1 February 1967, Koestler Archive, Ms 2385/5 (16).
10 Cited in Tamás Aczél, “Kezdők az Oxford Streeten: Kísérletek egy korszak idézésére,” 1956 Évkönyv 3 (1994), 73.
11 Julius Hay, Born 1900: The Autobiography of Julius Hay (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1975), pp. 213-14.
12 Letter of Julius Háy to Arthur Koestler, 13 March 1972, Koestler Archive, Ms 2387/4.
13 Letter of Gyula Háy to Arthur Koestler, 23 April 1975, Koestler Archive, Ms 2390/1.
14 Michael Polanyi, “Jewish Problems,” The Political Quarterly, XIV, 1 (1943), 37.
15 Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 17.
16 Ibid., p. 98.
17 Ibid., p. 144.