In The Hands of History (Part Two) – Geza Nagy & Brian Walton: A Voice From Russia

Geza Nagy and his fellow Hungarian soldiers began the longest walk of their lives by following a trackless path across endless expanses of ice and snow. They shivered their way across blindingly white landscapes during the day. At night, the darkness was all consuming, not only up in the sky, but also in each man’s soul. Who knows how many of them dropped dead along the way? This nightmare continued for weeks on end. Five long months of frost bite or knee deep mud, with defeat and death shadowing their every step. Somehow, despite the distance and the weather, in a land swarming with enemy partisans, thousands of haggard, tired Hungarian soldiers, epitomized by men like Geza Nagy, managed to stumble their way back to Hungary. They were home, but the war was far from over.

World War 2 hit Hungary hard  - badly damaged Chain Bridge with Buda Castle in the distance

World War 2 hit Hungary hard – photo of a badly damaged Chain Bridge with Buda Castle in the distance

Out of Death & Into Life
Brian said that Nagy was only allowed a brief respite in his homeland before the Soviet Army reappeared. They had fought their way from the Don to the Danube. Communism was ascendant in Hungary and for that matter, in Eastern Europe as well. The Soviet Army brought the Cold War with them. Having been an officer in the old Hungarian Army made Nagy a wanted man. As an intellectual, he was also an enemy of the state. Nagy did not wait to be arrested, he left his country behind.  Somehow he had survived to live another life. And what a life it turned out to be. Geza Nagy’s postwar life raises more questions than answers. What was his role during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956? What was he doing in his work for Interpol? How did he get to Canada, then the United States? A life of learning and scholarship had been transformed into one filled with mystery, intrigue and adventure. Did this compensate for the shame of defeat, loss and exile that had preceded it? Who can say? Perhaps even Nagy himself did not know the answer to that question.

 

A Soviet soldier hangs a sign in Budapest with the city's name translated into Russian

A Soviet soldier hangs a sign in Budapest with the city’s name translated into Russian

While Geza Nagy was running from one war to the next, Brian Walton was hard at work in school, excelling in every subject imaginable. He was a brilliant student, one of his nation’s brightest minds, the polar opposite of his surroundings. The post-war Britain he grew up in was not one of majesty and splendor, but of gritty factories and brown skies. Britain may have been on the winning side during the war, but it had hardly been victorious. The war left a long shadow over the British economy that stretched all the way into the 1960’s. After completing his university education at Cambridge, Brian Walton fled west as well. He came to the United States where professorships and pay were much greater. America was the land of opportunity for those exiled by war, economics or ideology.

Good Men & Bad Causes – The Voice of Russia
The legacy of World War II shaped the lives of Nagy and Walton as it did to millions of others. It pushed them far away from their respective homelands. It also brought them together. Who would have imagined that a brilliant intellectual from a small village in the Zemplin Hills of Hungary and a British scholar raised in the public housing of gritty, industrial Stockport would come to teach the history of western Civilization in a beautiful backwater of the Appalachian Mountains? They brought brilliance with them, but also their own attitudes and prejudices as well. Brian said that Nagy still professed an undying belief in the cause for which he had fought, even though it nearly destroyed him and his country. That cause turned out to be a hopeless one. The attempt to restore historic Hungary by aligning with the fascists only brought suffering, sorrow and decades of Soviet occupation to Hungary. Nagy and his country came to regret their mistake not just one time, but continuously.

A Hungarian soldiers cemetery in the Ukraine

Good men dying for a bad cause – A Hungarian soldiers cemetery in the Ukraine

“Plenty of good men have died for bad causes” were the words Brian once used to describe the disastrous folly of so many wrong-headed wars. That quote brings to mind all of those Hungarian soldiers who were swallowed up by the sheer size, scale and epic mismanagement of the Hungarian 2nd Army. Nagy escaped with his life, but only for a while. Eventually the Eastern Front caught up with him as well. Brian said Nagy used to cough horribly from bronchial problems he had contracted during the icy retreat. The wheezing, the hoarse coughing, might be interpreted as a voice from Russia, echoing down the decades as a cruel reminder of the horrors of war. In 1976, Geza Nagy finally died. His heart, of such great courage, was not enough to overcome the weakness of his lungs.

Haunted by History – The Difference Between Us
As for Brian Walton, at the time of Nagy’s death he was much younger, healthier and in the prime of his life. He would teach all the way into the 21st century. In his lifetime the British Empire collapsed, but the British economy surged once again. The row house in which he grew up was knocked down and housing for the middle class erected in its place. The war into which he was born became a distant, yet distinct memory. He never quite trusted the Germans, but fear of the Teutonic juggernaut, which had once ruled Europe and threatened the very existence of Britain, slowly disappeared. Time and distance healed many of the war’s wounds, but scars still remained.

The dream of a united Europe may prove illusory (Credit: Leena Saarinen)

The dream of a united Europe may prove illusory (Credit: Leena Saarinen)

Brian never really believed that Europe could be truly unified. The European Union was an artificial creation, an attempt to keep the Germans from becoming too powerful. If not German military power, than German economic power would come to rule Europe. The French were obsessed with being difficult, the British were not continentals and never would be, the Italians were wonderful people, but their politicians ridiculous, other European countries were too small. The only exception was Russia, which wasn’t really European. It was riddled with corruption and hell bent on screwing things up. Europe’s past was its future, but God forbid another cataclysmic war should come to Europe. Brian never had to see that day, he died in July just as Russian troops were crossing the border into the Ukraine.

*An End Note: Brian Walton, like Geza Nagy spent his professional life studying and teaching history. He had a natural curiosity about all things historical, but even the most brilliant scholars are limited by time and interest. This was especially true for Brian when it came to Eastern European history of which only knew a very limited amount. Perhaps this had something to do with the era he was born into. For nearly fifty years, Eastern Europe was closed off behind an Iron Curtain. Most of what Brian knew about the region’s past came from Eastern Europeans themselves, men such as Geza Nagy. The anecdotal evidence from one man’s experiences can be more telling than thousands of pages of facts. This was certainly true of Geza Nagy and it was also true of Brian Walton. These men not only taught history, they also helped make it. By looking back at their lives and their experiences we can, just for a moment, recapture the past. In death, as in life, they are still teaching us history.

 

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