This compelling memoir by Béla Zombory-Moldován, a Hungarian artist and illustrator, is at once both historically insightful and deeply personal. It spans the eight months from the outbreak of WW1 at the end of July 1914 to the spring of the following year, a period that resulted in sustained losses to the Austro-Hungarian forces, the nature of which left an indelible mark on Hungary in the years and decades that followed. It’s a remarkable piece of work, very moving in its depiction of the experiences of the war through the reflections of one man. Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone with an interest in the Great War or the Austro-Hungarian Empire in general.
As the memoir opens, Béla, a member of the Hungarian privileged classes, is holidaying with friends at the Adriatic resort of Novi Vinodolski. He is twenty-nine years old at this point, enjoying life and everything it has to offer.
All too soon Béla’s carefree existence is dramatically interrupted when word reaches the group that war has broken out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia (with Russia swiftly following in support). While some of Béla’s immediate friends are of the belief that the war will be swift and not too serious, Béla himself remains somewhat unconvinced. Rather presciently, our protagonist senses a broader threat to society, a feeling that socialism has been creating significant unrest and anxiety for a number of years. As a consequence, Béla fears a long and complex period of conflict ahead.
After a brief visit home to say goodbye to his parents, Béla reports for duty at Veszprém where he is assigned the rank of Ensign in the Royal Hungarian Army – he is also given the role of platoon leader. To Béla, the prospect of war is terrifying – a totally unknown quantity he must face with little in the way of experience or understanding.
I had no experience to fall back on. Anything I had heard of war had fallen on deaf ears; an anachronism, it had held no meaning for me. No one in my family since my grandfather had been in a war. They knew even less about it than I did, and had no experience on which I might draw. Until it confronted us, everyone had regarded war as an absurdity. Now it was a reality. If it was any consolation, the enemy must be having the same problem. Except that they had learned to handle firearms up there in the mountains of Serbia. We might pay a price for the blithe and vacuous existence we had led here. (p. 13)
This is a challenging work to summarise as it really needs to be experienced in person rather than second-hand through a review. There is a cumulative effect here – the sense that Béla’s reflections build in power with each chapter, thereby giving the memoir a greater sense of weight and importance.
It is especially strong on the sheer foolishness of some of the decisions that were made by those in command – in particular, the drive to conform to certain principles of honour or ceremony at the expense of soldiers’ lives. For example, Béla’s regiment is ordered to march the seventy-five kilometres from Veszprém to the point of deployment near the front. However, by the time they reach their destination, half the troops in the group are unfit for battle due to damage incurred to their feet and general exhaustion. The lack of any clear sense of foresight is completely galling. Then, in the thick of the action at Rava Ruska, it is rumoured that the Colonel in command plans to outlaw any digging of foxholes for protection as it would be considered cowardly and ill-disciplined on the part of the troops. Luckily for Béla, this veto doesn’t quite come to pass and the instinct to survive soon kicks in.
As one might expect, the memoir is also fairly explicit on the horrors of war, the physical and emotional effects of being trapped at the front with death and destruction everywhere. The scenes Béla describes are urgent, chaotic and utterly terrifying.
The continuous deafening explosions, the howling of the flying shell fragments have practically stupefied me. Beside me, between salvos, Miklósik frantically digs himself deeper into his hole. I don’t think he’d respond to any order now. Then a blast quite close to me; something has hit my knapsack and I’m almost suffocated under falling sand. My sole thought now, like an animal, is to save myself. Utterly helpless, I give myself up to my fate and, with no emotion, wait for the end to come. (pp. 53-54)
Having sustained a head wound in one of these early battles, Béla is dispatched back to Budapest for further treatment and a period of recovery. There is an anxious scene in which Béla only just manages to make it out of the battle zone on one of the last railway wagons to leave the territory before the Russian Army moves in – a fortuitous break for our protagonist, particularly given the nature of his injuries. As Béla travels back to the capital, he is incensed by newspaper reports of the conflict, clearly penned by fêted writers cocooned in the relative safety of the city’s coffeehouses, far away from the harsh realities of life at the front.
Report from the battlefield! Glorious weather! Battle-readiness of our troops unbreakable! They await the Russian attack from new positions, etcetera. It had evidently been composed by the armchair generals of the Pest coffeehouses. I leafed through the paper, looking mostly at the headlines. How alien it was! How far removed these people were from the agonies, the mortal fear as shells exploding around you, the marches that exhaust to the limits of consciousness, the mangled dead, their open eyes staring into oblivion. Yes, far away, and with no conception of the reality of war. (p. 72)
Back at home, Béla tries hard to reconnect with his former life, his family, his friends and, of course, his love of painting. However, the trauma he has experienced on the battlefield makes this very difficult to achieve. It is as if something inside him has ruptured, possibly forever.
It was impossible. All that I had thought, imagined, or conceived felt alien, incapable of development. […] Something had been broken inside me; or perhaps in the whole order of the world. Or in everything. For now, there was no way out. (p. 114)
Béla is declared unfit for military service for a period of three months, after which time he will be assessed again. Unsurprisingly, given what he has been through at the front, he is experiencing what is now commonly recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD).
As the memoir draws to a close, Béla finally finds some solace in the form of a trip to the coastal town of Lovrana where he stays with the Mausers, a generous and caring family who support his recuperation. It is here, in the spring of 1915, that Béla reconnects with nature and the enduring beauty of the world. His love of painting returns as he strives to capture the energy and subtleties of the waves in glorious watercolours. This is the most touching section of the memoir, a period of relative peace and calm which ends with Béla travelling back to Budapest to see what the future might hold for him.
This striking book comes with an excellent introduction from Béla’s grandson, Peter Zombory-Moldován, who also translated the manuscript. It offers an invaluable insight into the political context of the time and the extent of the losses endured by Austria-Hungary during this devastating war.
While it is never easy to read about these experiences, it is almost always rewarding in some way, and that’s certainly the case here. This is an absorbing memoir, written in a natural, unaffected style, shot through with moments of beauty amidst the traumas of war. I’ll finish with a passage that illustrates Béla’s painterly talents, his eye for a beautiful scene. At this point, he is on his way to Rava Ruska, marching to the front and the decimation which lies ahead.
We were passing through a wood. The beauty of nature in August reigned everywhere. The boughs were a deep green, but the sprigs of barberry, the wild rose hips and the leaves of the sumac were already glowing in flaming colors of carmine, cinnabar, minium, and orange. Beauty before death, for autumn and decay were coming. In the meadows and fields, nothing but stubble and fine ploughed soil, the stalks of maize left tied into bundles. Subjects for landscapes: the colors from burnt sienna and ochre to gray umber. Marvelous colors in the shadows. (p. 29)
Guy has also reviewed this book here.
The Burning of the World is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.