Read The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 Online

Authors: Bela Zombory-Moldovan

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Military, #Historical, #Personal Memoirs

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914

BOOK: The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914
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(1885–1967) was born in Munkács (now Mukachevo), in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, he established himself as a painter, illustrator, and graphic artist. Wounded in action in 1914 as a junior officer on the eastern front, he served the rest of the First World War in non-combatant duties. He was a successful painter, especially of portraits, during the interwar years, and was the principal of the Budapest School of Applied Arts from 1935 until his dismissal by the Communist regime in 1946. Out of official favor and artistic fashion in the postwar years, he devoted himself to the quiet landscapes in oils and watercolor that are his finest work. The writing of his recently discovered memoirs probably also dates from those years of seclusion.

has co-translated Arthur Schnitzler’s
and is working on a new version of Bertolt Brecht’s
Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches
for the English stage. A grandson of Béla Zombory-Moldován, he lives in London.

Béla Zombory-Moldován,
, 1915. Graphite pencil.

The collar insignia denote the rank of second lieutenant of the Austro-Hungarian infantry.


A Memoir of 1914


Translated from the Hungarian and with an introduction and notes by



New York



435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

Copyright © 2014 by the Estate of Béla Zombory-Moldován

Translation, introduction, and notes copyright © 2014 by Peter Zombory-Moldovan

All rights reserved.

The works reproduced as the frontispiece and on p. 139 are copyright © by the Estate of Béla Zombory-Moldován.

Maps: Ted McGrath

Cover image: Béla Zombory-Moldován (seated front, left) and companions on the beach at Novi Vinodolski, July 25, 1914

Cover design: Katy Homans

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Zombory-Moldován, Béla, 1885–1967.

The burning of the world : a memoir of 1914 / by Béla Zombory-Moldován ; translated from the Hungarian by Peter Zombory-Moldovan.

1 online resource. — (New York Review Books classics)

ISBN 978-1-59017-810-2 — ISBN 978-1-59017-809-6 (paperback)

1. Zombory-Moldován, Béla, 1885-1967. 2. World War, 1914-1918—Personal narratives, Hungarian. 3. World War, 1914-1918—Social aspects—Hungary. 4. Soldiers—Hungary—Biography. 5. Veterans—Hungary—Biography. 6. Artists—Hungary—Biography. 7. Hungary—History—1867-1918—Biography. I. Zombory-Moldovan, Peter. II. Title.



[B] 2014017711

ISBN 978-1-59017-810-2

For a complete list of books in the NYRB Classics series, visit
or write to: Catalog Requests, NYRB, 435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.


Biographical Notes

Title Page

Copyright and More Information


1. Novi

2. Budapest at War

3. Veszprém

4. The March

5. Deployment

6. Into the Fire

7. Back to Life

8. Home Again

9. The Hospital

10. Leave

11. Sajóvárkony

12. Lovrana




A page from the autograph manuscript of
The Burning of the World

The text is from chapter 7 and corresponds with the passage on page 72 beginning “Then he gathered himself together” in the second paragraph and ending “Yes, far away” in the penultimate paragraph.


. Friends pose for a photograph on a beach. They are tanned and at ease in their outfits of white linen and cotton. The men cover their heads against the bright sun, the women wear their hair bobbed or tied back. They look in the prime of life, mostly in their late twenties or early thirties: young professionals (lawyers, publishers, teachers, a couple of artists) on a group holiday at the Mediterranean coast. They smile or gaze at the view; a small child in its mother’s lap waves to the camera. The photographer—no doubt a local, working the beach during the season—has carefully inscribed the plate with his reference number and the date: 25/vii/1914.

The beach is at Novi Vinodolski, on the Adriatic. The confident man of twenty-nine sitting at the bottom of the photograph is my grandfather Béla Zombory-Moldován, a young artist oblivious to the fact that his carefree holiday is about to be cut short. In three days his country, Austria-Hungary, will be at war. A week from now he will be in uniform, and in just over a month he will be a thousand kilometers away, watching in horror as his comrades are torn apart by Russian artillery in the forests of Galicia.

Béla’s birthplace, on April 20, 1885, was the small and ancient city of Munkács, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It lay in the east of what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy ruled by Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria and holy apostolic king of Hungary.

The Carpathians are still there. All the rest is gone.

The city continues to exist in a physical sense, but these days it is called Mukachevo, and after a thousand years, give or take, within the former Kingdom of Hungary, eighteen in the former Czechoslovakia, and forty-six in the former USSR, it is now in Ukraine. These have not been merely changes of administration. In 1910, three-quarters of its inhabitants were native speakers of Hungarian;
in 2001, fewer than one in ten were.

Hungary would remain a kingdom until 1946, but in name only. A short-lived Communist revolution in 1919 gave way to a nationalist regime under Admiral Miklós Horthy, who installed himself as “regent” whilst conniving in the removal from Hungary of Franz Joseph’s successor, Karl. This was against the background of Hungary’s dismemberment under the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, imposed by the victors of the First World War, in which the country was shorn of almost three-quarters of its prewar territory, two-thirds of its prewar population, and five of its ten largest cities. Having lost, among other things, its access to the sea at the Adriatic port of Fiume (now Rijeka), Hungary became (as one wag put it) a kingdom without a king, ruled by an admiral without a fleet. Worse was to come in 1944 and after.

This remarkable memoir—published here for the first time in any language—is a record, through the eyes of one man caught up in the maelstrom, of the fateful year when everything fell apart.

Three centuries of subjugation—first to the Ottoman Turks, then to Austria—had stoked a spirit of nationalism in Hungary, which erupted into revolution against Hapsburg rule in 1848. That revolution was suppressed; but by the Compromise of 1867, Hungary was granted home rule and (at least in principle) equal status with Austria in what was henceforth known as the dual monarchy. Hungary now had its own parliament, government, and institutions of statehood; only its foreign policy and defense were controlled from Vienna, which became the joint capital with Budapest. The Kingdom of Hungary then extended over a land area almost equal to that of today’s Germany; it stretched from the Adriatic coast to the Tatra mountains in the north, and from what is now the Austrian district of Burgenland in the west to Transylvania in the far southeast.

An efficient railway system soon extended to the farthest reaches of the empire. The decades of stability after 1867 saw a sustained economic boom in which industry, trade, and construction took off at a rapid rate—above all, in Budapest, which was formed in 1873 with the unification of the twin cities of the ancient Buda on the west bank of the Danube and the vigorously expanding modern Pest on its east bank. This confident new metropolis built the world’s second underground railway system, public buildings that rivaled (and, in the case of the vast neo-Gothic parliament building, surpassed) those of Vienna in magnificence, and entire quarters of well-appointed and elegant apartment buildings to house the mushrooming bourgeoisie and their servants.

Three sections of society, in particular, enjoyed the fruits of this age of national confidence and economic growth. The first was the aristocracy of great landowning magnates, whose economic interests were assiduously protected (largely at the expense of the peasantry) by successive governments. The second was the gentry,
a class of particular prominence in Hungary, large numbers of whom moved from genteel impecuniosity in the provinces to populate the new national political class, or (as in the case of Béla’s father) to take up suitably gentlemanly appointments in the burgeoning civil service. Perhaps the most notable and visible beneficiaries were Hungarian Jews, who were granted equal civil and political rights in 1867. The decades of political liberalism and religious tolerance that followed saw the emergence of a mainly Jewish urban upper middle class that was prominent in industry, business, the professions, and the intelligentsia.

When, in old age, people of my grandparents’ generation referred to “peacetime” (
a béke
), it was to this pre-1914 period, rather than to the years between the wars, that they looked back with the keenest nostalgia. The reality is that the final decades of the monarchy were no long halcyon summer, any more than was the Edwardian age later so mythologized in the English-speaking world. Prewar Hungary was, in many respects, a troubled polity. A quarter of the population were landless peasants, trapped in abject neo-feudal servitude scarcely distinguishable from serfdom; a law of 1898 permitted owners of large estates to practice corporal punishment on agricultural workers who went on strike and to resort to press-gangs at harvest time, and the threat of starvation was never far away. Meanwhile, the growing urban proletariat endured working and living conditions far worse than those of their western European counterparts, sometimes bordering on destitution. By 1914, the stirrings of political unrest and radicalism, though routinely suppressed, were hard to ignore.

The greatest political tension in pre-1914 Austria-Hungary, however, stemmed from the refusal of the Magyar (the ethnically Hungarian) political establishment to meet the aspirations of the kingdom’s minority nationalities—especially the Slovaks in the north, the Serbs in the south, and the Romanians in the southeast—to a measure of cultural and political autonomy. Hungarians were fearful of becoming outnumbered in their own country, of losing their privileged position within the empire, and, worst of all, of the prospect of the historic Magyar lands being parceled out among the various nationalities that had settled in them, mainly after Magyar depopulation during the Turkish occupation. These fears caused Budapest vigorously to resist the idea, gaining ground in Vienna, that the only stable future for an increasingly fissile empire would be some kind of multinational confederation. Hungarian governments insisted, instead, on a policy of “Magyarization”—the use of the Hungarian language (which is linguistically unrelated to the Slavic languages spoken by most of the kingdom’s other nationalities) in all schools and for official business. This intransigence provoked increasing resentment and, eventually, calls for full independence among some of the minority groups. There was a growing sense of crisis as such demands received support and encouragement from neighboring states such as Romania and—as it turned out, fatefully—Serbia, with the backing of its fellow-Slav patron, Russia.

BOOK: The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914
6.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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