After reading Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a fictionalized account of his experiences in WWI, I read an entirely different account written from the Hungarian view: The Burning of the World: a Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldován. While the narrator in Fear conveys the initial, naïve sentiment that many men looked forward to the war as an “adventure,” a break in their monotonous lives, Béla Zombory-Moldován (Béla from this point on) makes it quite clear that the war arrived as an unwelcome interruption. Fear and The Burning of the World are such completely different books, while still on the same topic of WWI, that they act as good companion books to be read fairly close together. That said, it’s probably inevitable that we identify with one book more than the other.
Béla, a twenty-nine-year-old artist, and a member of a privileged Austro-Hungarian gentry family, is enjoying himself on holiday on an Adriatic beach, taking a solitary swim and trying to shake off the effects of the wine drunk the night before when he spies someone walking towards him with “some haste.” It’s through this man, the bathing attendant, that Béla receives the startling news that war has been declared and that a list giving “call-updates by year of birth” has been posted to the bathing station wall. The news comes so quickly and so jarringly rips apart Béla’s holiday, that we are almost as shocked as he is, and while the manner in which the news is conveyed may be simple, this is a moment that Béla, and anyone else who survived the war, will clearly never forget.
I stared at the poster as if I had just suffered a stroke, reading it over and over, until I realized that I was just looking at words rather than taking in the meaning.
Although Béla has a few precious days before he must report for duty, he can no longer enjoy his holiday. A page has been turned, and life which previously seemed carefree, can no longer be enjoyed. But Béla isn’t the only one altered by the news. The rhetoric, drama, and nationalism of war has invaded even lunch at the hotel dining room:
The dining room had changed. All the usual convivial noise, larking about and tittering had ceased. The guests had gathered at separate tables according to their nationalities. Groups which had previously spread themselves around now clustered together. Sereghy and his wife had come over to join us. Czechs, Serbs, Croats. Germans–all sat apart. People leaned in together over table and discussed events with animated gestures and low voices.
Everyone spoke in their mother tongue as is encyphering what they had to say.
The nationalistic segregation spreads, and it’s worse by dinner time. Hungarians who had not previously spoken to Béla join his table, the area no longer feels safe, everyone wants to return home.
There was something almost ostentatious now about the separation of nationalities. The Slavs huddles together. The Germans looked the least concerned: a huge country with a fearsome army.
These unique observations which show the narrator’s world changing with the speed of a natural disaster underscore the idea that the carefree holiday has turned into something completely different–the holidaymakers may be potential enemies. Béla grasps immediately, the flash of the bigger picture, that while some people speculate that the war will be over before it really begins, it may not be so simple:
This war may just be the first act of a global tragedy. It’s as if someone were struggling against an angry sea, while behind his back towers an immense wall of ice, ready to collapse onto him at any moment. This is the socialist revolution which will, one day, fall with full force on nations weakened by war. The war could be the least of our problems. Socialism has been agitating and organizing for the last hundred years. It’s just waiting for the opportunity to take power. Maybe it would be better if it did: one of its basic principles is to put an end to wars of conquest. Maybe it’ll be they who stop this war, if political theory and practice coincide for once.
Given what happened to the Austro-Hungarian empire, this is an interesting comment made by a man “caught up in the maelstrom [of] the fateful year when everything fell apart.”
Béla returns home to Budapest, says his farewells to his family and his favoured locations. Initially, he wears a “mask” of normality and “confident gaiety” which finally drops. Béla joins the Thirty-First regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army as an ensign and since he’s there early, he witnesses the “torrent of men streaming” in from all over the region. The idiocy begins immediately when the regiment is ordered to make a seventy-five kilometer march, which as it turns out, is right into the Russian lines at Rava Ruska. The mouth to hell opens there in the wood as Béla encounters piles of abandoned rifles, clothing, and the corpses of dead Hungarians. Initially forbidden to dig foxholes “as this ‘leads to cowardice and undermines discipline’ ” Béla ignores that order after the officer who gave it is blown to shreds, and Béla digs in using a tin lid, while other men use their hands.
The term cannon fodder leaps to mind in the sheer insanity of shoving exhausted, inexperienced men right into the line of fire. The sense of chaos reigns, and Béla’s first encounter, almost surreal in its rapid, blinding intensity, is over almost before it begins. Always there’s Béla’s unused sword, part of his natty uniform getting in the way; it’s an incongruous, antiquated and as it turns out inconvenient accessory.
There’s a sense of privilege to Béla’s miraculous tale. Had he not been an officer with a “Slovak lad called Jóska” as a burly batman it seems doubtful he would have survived. As an officer, he fares better–better food, better billets, and throughout it all Jóska acts as Béla’s personal bodyguard ensuring that he gets home, gets food, acting as his feet, arms and legs when Béla is too weak to fend for himself. It’s in Béla’s attitude to Jóska, that the sense of privilege grates. The patronizing divide between classes gapes wide. To Béla, Jóska is a peasant, a “man-child”:
I owed a debt of gratitude to this healthy resourceful lad: though I knew that this personal service had been an opportunity for a bit of bunking-off on his part.
My mother received Jóska without much enthusiasm; she seemed anxious. “Where shall we put him?”
“All he needs is a straw mattress at night, which can be put away somewhere during the day. He’s a good decent lad, and I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Let him rest here for a week as well. Then he’ll go back to the regiment.”
Jóska bathes and attends Béla and on the third day, Béla tells Jóska to return to the regiment.
The Burning of the World, as a memoir, is a much more personal document than Chevallier’s fictionalized account of his WWI experiences. Whereas Fear is openly anti-war, The Burning of the World is not. Béla shows the chaos, lack of preparation and stupidity of those in command, but his complaints about “armchair generals” are directed towards ineptitude, archaic attitudes and methods of fighting, but he never bitterly questions the hierarchy of the society in which he lives. Whereas Chevallier’s narrator Jean notes “those who wanted all this” make public appearances on “palace balconies,” and for Jean, this was the moment when “the first–and last–machine gun should have done its work, emptied its belt of bullets on to that emperor and his advisors.” Similarly he notes, “in the revolution, they sent incompetent generals to the guillotine, an excellent measure.”
The Burning of the World covers a period of about eight months beginning with Béla hearing the “news of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia” until March 1915 when he reports back to duty after being injured and recuperating. At 184 pages, we are left wishing for more, but the introduction explains what happened to Béla for the rest of the war and beyond. The book includes some maps, a painting from Béla, and a wonderful photograph of a large group of people on holiday at Novi Vinodolski–“three days before Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia and the start of the first World War. ” It’s peculiar how some people can dominate a photograph, and in this photo, Béla, a man of his time and his class, stands out.
The manuscript for The Burning of the World was found in 2013 “locked away among family papers,” and what a wonderful find this is. Translated and with an introduction by the author’s grandson Peter Zombory-Moldován who notes that “by the end of the war, Austro-Hungarian casualties were almost seven million out of a population (in 1914) of fifty-one million.”
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