One of the major faults of history is that so much of it tends to consist of an endless litany of facts and details. This comes at the expense of the compelling human drama that makes the past really come to life. When it comes to Eastern Europe, the standard national histories are almost always generally bland. These contain reams of statistics in place of anecdotes and avoid human interest stories in order to focus on broad political and economic trends. To find the meat and potatoes of history (and Eastern Europe has long subsisted quite literally on meat and potatoes) I look for first person accounts from people who made or were shaped by historical events. Once in a while I stumble across not only a great story about Eastern Europe, but also one that illuminates an entire age. Such stories are rarely found in standard history books, but they can often be found in memoirs.
A Transylvanian Renaissance Man
One of the memoirs from an Eastern European that I would highly recommend is Miklos Banffy’s The Phoenix Land. Banffy was a Transylvanian aristocrat whose life and times were influenced by many important events including the golden age of Austria-Hungary, the First World War and its chaotic aftermath, the bitter interwar period that led to the cataclysm of World War II. Banffy was an active observer and participant in many of these events. He was something of a modern Renaissance man, involved in politics as a Member of the Hungarian Parliament eventually working his way up to a short stint as the Foreign Minister. He was also Director of the Hungarian State Theaters which during the World War I. This position made him the master of ceremonies for the coronation of the last Habsburg King, Karl I in Budapest. Posthumously, Banffy gained fame for his authorship of the famous three-volume Transylvanian Trilogy (They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided) that paints an unforgettable picture of aristocratic behavior in Transylvania during the early 20th century. He also authored a wonderful memoir, The Phoenix Land, which offers a look at his career in politics especially during the aftermath of World War I, a time when Hungary lost much of its territorial integrity.
In one part of that book Banffy recounts the adventures he had in 1919 while serving as an envoy to represent the interests of the Szekely, a Hungarian speaking people who inhabit the Eastern Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. As part of his duties, Banffy tries to make his way to Great Britain where he can speak on behalf of the Szekely to post-war peacemakers. Banffy is quintessential wandering Hungarian, set adrift from his homeland by the outcome of war, something that occurred on countless occasions to Hungarians during the 20th century. He ends up in the Netherlands searching for someone who can help him get across the channel and gain access to peacemakers in England. Banffy, a man who heretofore in life had enjoyed the privileges of wealth and power that flowed from his elite, aristocratic background is reduced to searching the very fringes of society for help. This brings him into an unforgettable meeting with a deeply disturbed Hungarian exile, a man whose personality and principles are an unsettling example of deep rooted bitterness, cynicism and recrimination. The man known as Leipnik displays a disturbing array of reactionary emotions, the same ones that would come to plague both Hungary and Europe during the interwar years.
On The Fringes Of A Stormy Sea
As Banffy relates: I had some other sources to tap as well. One of these led me a to a man of somewhat dubious reputation but who was one of those characters that come to the surface in wartime. He was a Mr. Leipnik of Hungarian descent but long resident in England. As far as I could gather he was regarded everywhere, at home as well as abroad, as a most suspicious character…He had prophesied the downfall of the Central Powers in the newspapers of several countries and had suggested that salvation would only be found in the same system of universal brotherhood as the League of Nations…
Mr. Leipnik lived at Scheveningen in one of those enormous fashionable hotels built along the seashore. When I went to see him there it was February, and the six-storey hotel, the last before one reached the northern dunes, had a forlorn air since most of the hundreds of windows were closed and the portico boarded up. Everything that during the high season in summer would be bright with flowers and color and new paint, was shabby, grey and battered. Everywhere, including the garden, seemed abandoned and strewn with rubbish. To reach his tiny room on God knows which upper floor I had to climb up a service stair. There, at last, I found the excellent Mr. Leipnik.
He was a short man, thin and grey and wrinkled. His face was line with deep furrows, and he was as yellow as a lemon. Also, alas, just as sour!
After a few polite preliminaries, I went straight to the point. How could I get to England?
“If I knew that I’d be there myself?” was the answer.
This was not a promising start, but as I persevered it soon became clear that my visit was for nothing.
He abused the English passionately – and every other Entente nation as well – complaining bitterly that during the “they” had all been only too happy to make use of him but now, now “they” didn’t care a hoot.
After hearing this I might just as well have gone straight back to The Hague, but now he started to interest me as an example of human oddity, and so I stayed smoking innumerable cigarettes, and from time to time throwing in a word or two to keep him talking. This he did, airing countless grievances. He went on for a long time, talking without cease even when it started to get dark, walking up and down in that little room which was barely four meters from the door to the window overlooking the sea.
He abused everybody: he hated everybody. He declared that “they” all owed everything to his noble ideas and generous spirit. Karolyi and Jaszi had taken all of their ideas from him but had no idea how to realize them – and not only that but they were stupid enough now not even to seek his advice.
It was the same with Lloyd George and Clemenceau – and Salandra – and everyone else too. They had without exception battened on him and stolen his ideas and were now merrily living it up in luxurious Parisian palaces , eating and drinking and toasting each other while he, the great Leipnik, was totally excluded. Even though their success was due to his wonderful ideas, they would not give him any credit. Of course they were full of envy and without talent, an so they saw to it that he was not only squeezed out and kept away from their counsels but also condemned to live here, in the misery of this shabby cold room, staring at the bleak ocean from the unheated squalor of this dreadful hole! This was their gratitude. This, their thanks, and this was how he was treated! He went on for a long time, not exactly in these words, but endlessly repeating a theme that never changed.
There was something essentially dramatic in the way that, as the room grew darker, his shape became silhouetted against the big bay window with its greenish shimmering background of an ocean here an there covered with grey fog – that “bitter sea” of Homer – an infinity of angry waves, their crests forever revealing that eternal, useless, restless wrath as it hammered itself against the hotel’s sea walls with a rhythmic monotonous roar.
Whenever I think about Leipnik, this is how I still see him, pacing up and down, up and down, endlessly repeating his litany of illusion to the accompaniment of the ocean’s angry rhythm that seemed so symbolic of eternal hopelessness.
It was certainly an interesting experience!
From Interwar To World War – Cynicism, Bitterness & Disillusionment
This was much more than an interesting personal experience. Leipnik can also be seen as a striking example of a feeling that was beginning to stir in the hearts of millions during the interwar period. Marked by a vile disillusionment with the peace process, a loathing of real and imagined foes, the attitude of Leipnik was shared – albeit to a less exaggerated degree – by hundreds of thousands of Hungarians. Leipnik is a bitter angry man who spews forth vitriol, has lost all reason, lacks self-awareness and seems to inhabit an alternate world. Could the same not be said of those purveyors of fascism during the years between the First and Second World Wars? At first, Hungary was left to vent its frustrations alone and in vain, much like Leipnik. Later Hungary discovered fellow travelers in Italy and Germany. Together they would share the dream of correcting what they believed to be outrageous historical injustices. It would not be until the late 1930’s that they were able to begin realizing their dreams of vindication by recovering the lost lands of Historic Hungary through a fatal alliance with Nazi Germany. It was this alliance which would have horrific consequences for Hungary.
The story of Leipnik, as told through the literary skill of Miklos Banffy, leaves a lasting impression on the reader. He is a tragically unforgettable character. Leipnik, like so many famous Hungarians went abroad to realize his ambitions. Tellingly he did not end up famous, only infamous. He was a complete failure, left to seethe in arrogant disillusionment. If it was not for Banffy stumbling upon him, Leipnik would be totally unknown. Their meeting was an accident of history, but the cynicism and bitterness displayed by Leipnik was no accident. These feelings were representative of an attitude that eventually helped lead Europe into another world war.