11. 24. 2015. 10:57

Hungarian authors in World War I

Exhibition at the Petőfi Literary Museum

"that day, my life was broken into two, divided into two, perhaps like everyone else’s who was a man at that time... Safety and tranquility disappeared from the world; these were the first to disappear...

The exhibition of the Petőfi Literary Museum on World War I shows the years between 1914 and 1918 from the viewpoint and in the interpretation of Hungarian writers and poets. It is mainly built on contemporary literary works and personal narrative sources and documents, and focuses on individual experiences.

"The double deaths evoked neither pity nor a thirst for revenge in people’s hearts. They died, so it happened. For a while, people talked about the Hohenberg orphans, and the dreary, cold, almost cruel ritual of the burial ceremony. Nobody thought for a moment that because of this couple we will engage in a war with Serbia, and that because of their death, or at least in their names, the greatest war in world history will be waged." (Diary of Laura Lengyel, 28 July 1914)

The exhibition shows the war from an interesting angle: the viewpoint of Hungarian authors who participated in the war in various ways. We can read about the world of battlefields and rifle-pits, described by writers who were drafted, who fought in the war, and in many cases taken prisoners of war. We can also read reports of war correspondents. Those authors who remained at home reported about everyday life in the hinterlands. The narratives of the most important writers of that age show how the attitudes of intellectuals concerning the war changed with time: the early enthusiasm of some writers gave way to gradual disappointment; whereas those who immediately and consistently opposed the war became increasingly pacifistic. We can also read excerpts from works written after the war, evoking how people tried to come to terms with their personal and collective tragedies.

"that day, my life was broken into two, divided into two, perhaps like everyone else’s who was a man at that time... Safety and tranquility disappeared from the world; these were the first to disappear... And in the next year, my younger brother disappeared, to come back later after five years as a prisoner of war... My mother’s cheerful spirit also disappeared... And then one morning, Transylvania disappeared." (Mihály Babits: Curriculum vitae, 1939)

The curators of the exhibition invented an innovative method for guiding the viewer through the exhibition. We can choose between two routes that are parallel with each other and have the same beginning and end point. As in reality, conscription represents the dividing line in the exhibition as well: the viewer can decide either to stay at home or to go to war. This way, the hardships experienced in the hinterlands and life in the front lines unfold side by side.

There were three options for men, including Hungarian writers and journalists, during wartime. There were those who were unsuitable for army service, including Endre Ady, Mihály Babits, Menyhért Lengyel and Zsigmond Móricz. Among those who were conscripted, there were such writers as Géza Gyóni, Jenő Józsi Tersánszky, Ernő Szép and Béla Balázs. The transitional roles are represented by writers who worked as war reporters: Ferenc Molnár, Lajos Biró and Margit Vészi, authors who described life in the battlefields and the rifle-pits for those who remained at home, evading the watchful eye of censors.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the ultimatum for Serbia, the proclamation of war and conscription meant censorship―moral and political censorship as well as censorship of the press and free speech―for all the nations who lived within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Censorship made life more difficult for everybody, as the contemporary manuscripts and handouts exhibited prove: the exchange of information between soldiers and their families was also strictly controlled. The letters, reminiscences and diaries of writers report about the mood and public perception during the war, about the everyday life of military hospitals and rifle-pits, as well as life in the hinterlands.

"Just think of it: we are living at a time of horrible disaster of humanity. It is as terrible as the flood was hundreds of thousands of years ago... Oh, no article, no book can describe you this hell. For some days, I’ve been walking in the front lines as I’ve been given the task to check what needed to be improved there. I am crying like a little child from what I saw there! People who have been without warm food for weeks, sitting in the mud up to their belts, frozen, devoid of any human form. Oh, there is no animal that would not evoke pity in me if I saw it in such a miserable state. But there is no other animal that would tolerate this so peacefully! All of these people deserve the glory of saints as they live in permanent privation, and suffer all the pains of hell without protest, bleeding for others." (Endre Nagy, 1915)

Excerpts from the works of these writers show the attitude of European intellectuals to the war, their commitment to their countries and the 'culture of war' in 20th century Europe. The scenery and atmosphere of a hospital comes alive in front of our eyes to represent the madness of war, expressing both the mass psychosis in the beginning of the war and the gradual mental and physical breakdown. The exhibition shows the great variety of literary expressions of the tragedy of war, as well as the utopias inspired by the experience of the war.

"I remember how happy I was a year ago to become a soldier. My God – this is not a war, it is a matter of disgusting calculation, dirty trickery, the senseless sacrifice of millions. It is impossible to resist the flood of Russians, they are hundred times more people than us. My only desire is to escape from here – my nerves will not take it much longer... But don’t take this as a complaint or desperation. Everybody is in such a mood here. (Béla Hamvas, 1916)"

Beside the personal belongings, books and manuscripts of the writers, contemporary works of art, posters and photos are also showcased, as well as interactive boards which show life in the front lines, the hinterlands and in POW camps.

All this, as well as the description of the outbreak of the 'Spanish flu' epidemic, serves as an introduction to the symbolic funeral of Endre Ady, an homage to all the victims of the war. The shrine of Ady, created by Miklós Melocco, which is part of the permanent exhibition, is included in the exhibition about World War I, and the new context enriches the shrine with new meanings.

World War I meant the beginning of the bloody 20th century in the history of Europe, and one of the most tragic periods in Hungarian history. This exhibition sheds a light on this period from an unusual and unique angle.

"Staying home is shameful, perishing is horrible."
Hungarian authors in World War I

Petőfi Literary Museum, 5 November 2014 – 10 January 2016

Anna Báznai

Tags: World War I