The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 (Béla Zombory-Moldován)

For more than 150 years, Americans have been mostly spared the cost of war. Yes, at times, some have felt the cost in the lives of their sons, though today our ruling classes know nothing even of that. But our wars are fought elsewhere, not in America. Thus, we can’t really conceive of a war for our national survival—except, abstractly, one involving a rain of warheads from the sky. Neither do Americans grasp, because they have never experienced it, how war can sweep over a nation unexpectedly, changing everything in an instant. This memoir is a salutary reminder of forgotten truths—and gives us reason to reflect on whether Americans should be willing to fight for “America” at all.

Béla Zombory-Moldován was born in 1885 in Munkács, a Hungarian city in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, part of Hungary for a thousand years, though at this moment temporarily under Ukrainian control. His family was of the gentry class, something not directly translatable to Western experience, but generally meaning minor nobility, without necessarily any wealth, yet carrying social prestige. Many of the gentry, including his father, worked in the civil service, which in Europe has long been regarded as a desirable profession, not a borderline contemptible way of making a living as it is usually viewed in America. Zombory-Moldován trained as an artist in Budapest, and taught at the Budapest School of Applied Arts from 1909 to 1914, while also illustrating a children’s weekly magazine.

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This era was the height of Budapest, then called the “Paris of the East.” Hungary itself was three times the size it is now, and constituted half of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, a structure worked out with the Austrians in 1867 in which Hungary was allied with, and closely tied to, Austria, with which it shared a king, but was governed independently in many areas. What strikes the reader is how civilized and cultured the urban Hungary of the time was, relative to any modern Western society. (John Lukacs’s Budapest 1900 evokes the time and place very well.) And, as Zombory-Moldován makes clear, all those in this social class felt comfortable and secure. To be sure, there were rumblings of various national concerns, most notably the problem of restive national minorities which had outbred Hungarians in some of the Hungarian lands. But for decades the Dual Monarchy had done well economically and socially, and it seemed to bid fair to keep doing so, even if in retrospect it was held together with tape and baling wire. Yes, Hungarians remembered the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, harshly put down by the Austrians with Russian help, but that was long ago, and Hungary had not been involved in any war since. “When my grandfather spoke of 1848, we would listen with bored half smiles; it was all so alien to us, so far removed from us.” Life was good.

And then, one fateful week, at the end of July, 1914, Zombory-Moldován went on vacation with a group of friends to Novi Vinodolksi, a resort on the Croatian Adriatic coast (when Croatia was also part of Hungary, technically federated). A picture of this carefree gathering, including the author, graces the cover of this book (he is in the lower left). On July 28, the Monarchy declared mobilization for war. Barely a month later, Zombory-Moldován was fighting in Galicia, around Przemyśl, on the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian lands, in what is now Poland and Ukraine, and then was the border with Russia. (As it happens, where he was fighting was the exact set of battles covered in Alexander Watson’s The Fortress, which I recently discussed.) This was not the trench warfare we associate with the Western Front, but it was modern warfare with artillery and machine guns, and just as impersonal and terrible as one would expect.

Innumerable books have been written on the runup to, and the conduct of, World War I. In fact, I am also currently reading Sean McMeekin’s July 1914, which goes into great detail about what men of power did during that month. Fewer books have been written from the point of view of the common soldier. Fewer still have been written about the Eastern Front, or from the Austro-Hungarian perspective. This makes Zombory-Moldován’s memoir of particular value.

The Burning of the World is not an anti-war memoir, of the type beloved by many in the West. It has no ideological tilt. Zombory-Moldován was just an average man, even if as a painter, he was more observant than most men. His memoir is neither pro-war nor anti-war, though he, as do most soldiers, found war very unpleasant. (There are some exceptions, men who find their true selves in war and write about it, including Ernst Jünger and Erwin Rommel.) Zombory-Moldován treats the war as, perhaps, a force of nature, and rather than dwelling on geopolitics, is much more concerned with its impacts on him and the men he knows, friends and acquaintances—both those in the military and not.

This book was first published, in any language, in 2014. It was not earlier published in Hungarian, and in fact it was kept secret by the author until his death, in 1967 (he died on August 20, Saint Stephen’s Day, the Hungarian national holiday). His wife also hid the memoir, and after her death it was retained in the family, until in 2012 it came into the hands of Zombory-Moldován’s grandson—Peter Zombory-Moldován, a lawyer working in London. Intrigued, he went to the effort of translating the work, which was written in manuscript. This was clearly a labor of love for the grandson. The footnotes, for example, show hard work to clarify his grandfather’s writing, as in when he translates Ruthene dialects that his grandfather wrote down phonetically. They also make understandable many what would otherwise be obscure references, from popular songs to then-famous politicians.

It is not clear when Zombory-Moldován wrote his memoir—whether soon after the war, or years later, but probably the latter. The events described end only a few months after they began; there is some suggestion from his grandson that he wrote more, but that his grandmother may have destroyed the portions from and after the time they met (and his grandson also notes that he has not published some chapters relating to his grandfather’s earlier youth). The missing parts do not really matter, though certainly Zombory-Moldován’s later life would hold some interest (he led a quiet life of art and teaching). But the bulk of third-party interest in his life is his experience in the war.

The book begins with the author going for a swim, the morning after a night of inebriation. Strangely, nobody is about. Then a beach attendant points out that there is a call-up notice in the locker room, including for men born in his year, for six days later. Everything changed instantly, forever. At breakfast, for example, all the people at the resort separated, for the first time, into ethnic groups—not mutually hostile, but in times of crisis, one bands together with those with whom one has the most in common, whom one can trust. Rumor and speculation, the twin accompaniments of every war, instantly exploded, often driven by the core personalities involved, optimistic or pessimistic.

He takes the train back to Budapest, where he lives with his parents. They put on a brave face. He reports for duty in Veszprém, where men are assembling. Zombory-Moldován was an officer—his rank is translated as “ensign,” apparently equivalent to the Western “lieutenant,” and he commanded a platoon, around twenty men. He knew many of the other officers from his life in Budapest. After some unnecessary long-distance marching, the men are gathered at Keszthely, a resort town on the edge of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Europe, which plays an important part in Hungarian culture. There they undergo training for a few weeks—though Zombory-Moldován, as an officer, is billeted with local families and continues to interact on a decorous social level with the gentry. The training seems to have been very short, essentially refresher training—military service in peacetime, for between one and three years, had been compulsory, so presumably everyone called up in these first weeks was part of the reserves. On September 4, they are ordered to entrain for Galicia. And in no time at all, a few days later, he and his men are fighting in the forests, near Rawa Ruska, just north of Lvov.

As seems to be the universal reaction, they quickly come to fear artillery, and to learn the best ways, none very good, to avoid being killed by it, as well as other crucial practical lessons not offered in training, such as that the ubiquitous Galician sand quickly jams the cycling mechanisms of their rifles (bolt action Mannlicher M1895s). Zombory-Moldován leads his men through woods and over hills, advancing against the Russians, over ground earlier advances had failed to capture. They were under-equipped with artillery relative to the Russians, in part because of arguments Hungarian politicians had been having for years with the Austrians about the use of Hungarian as the “language of command,” a big concern in the polyglot Austro-Hungarian armies. That is, Hungarian politicians had held up military modernization in order to prevent Austrian undermining of Hungarian preeminence in the Army. As is often true in books about Hungarians, the twin Hungarian characteristics of excessive, even destructive, argumentation and unhinged bravery are front and center in the narrative.

The typical horrors of modern war are covered in one long chapter. Zombory-Moldován’s platoon advances, and is cut off from the main body of Hungarian forces, although they don’t realize this at first, communication with others, including superiors, being sporadic in the best of conditions. When they do, after being hammered by the Russians, they pull back in disorder, some of them making it back to the main body of the army, where the higher-ups are very surprised Zombory-Moldován and his men are still alive. The rate of casualties is incomprehensible to us; as the translator points out, in the first two weeks of the war, before the war in the West even got properly started, the Monarchy suffered 400,000 casualties (and by the end of the war, seven million out of a population of fifty-one million). The Russians win the battle, and the Hungarians organize to retreat. But as they organize, a shrapnel shell lands near Zombory-Moldován, and he is gravely wounded in the head. He is laid in a horse-drawn cart with other soldiers, and they retreat.

We are only halfway through the book. The remainder is, while still a very interesting slice of history, more introspective. Fortunately, for the remainder of his trip home, and for some time thereafter, Zombory-Moldován was attended by his batman, Jóska (i.e., “Joey”). Many of the wounded die, but the pair make it back to Lubaczow (then and now in Poland), where they can get on a train—and Zombory-Moldován returns to Budapest, where he tries to understand what has just happened to him, and to the nation. He remarks, for example, on the standard markers of modern war—the ubiquitous propaganda peddled both by the media and by the “coffeehouse Conrads” (that is, armchair generals—the reference is to both Budapest coffeehouse culture and the notoriously aggressive chief of the general staff of the Austro-Hungarian armies). And he muses on how a divide quickly opens up between those who have fought and those who try to avoid it, claiming they are in “essential occupations”; along with the more existential divide between those who understand war in all its horrors, and those oblivious, meaning that the former group finds it very hard to return to their former life.

After a few days recuperation at home, and before he enters a military hospital, he sends Jóska back to the regiment, and notes “I would never see him again.” Presumably he died; there are several names in this book which have the same laconic note as their last mention. Zombory-Moldován had in his platoon a cheerful Gypsy drummer, one János Dráfi, whose wife and children had come out to greet him as they marched near the Balaton. In the retreat from Rawa Ruska, he finds a potato, but plants it, rather than eating it. “‘It’s got such good shoots. It wants to live. I’m going to plant it. It might live longer than me.’ The potato did indeed outlive Drummer János Dráfi of the Royal Hungarian Army.” In the hospital there are both mental cases, with what would now be called post-traumatic stress (which they called “traumatic neurosis,” ascribing the symptoms to physical brain damage) and those with (often fatal) physical wounds. Zombory-Moldován’s own case was partly both, but he does not seem, after the initial retreat, to have been in danger of death, and so was able to observe the others with a keen eye.

Released, he got three months’ leave. But, try as he might, he could not really return to his old life, neither drawing at his studio nor social interaction with his friends. He felt alienated, and the city, filled with wounded and lacking those who were still at the front, was suddenly very different. He could not re-immerse himself in his beloved coffeehouse culture; he peers in windows and sees his friends who had not gone to war, and walks on. “I hadn’t counted on the fact that my entire emotional and mental world had taken a different path.” In microcosm, this is the story of the entire Hungarian nation over the following five years, after which everything was very different, and remained so. There is a lesson here; the mental world of an entire nation can change very quickly. Some of us can remember this from September 11, when for a brief time Americans felt united, unaware that even at that moment our ruling class was plotting to betray us and that much of the feeling was the result of propaganda. Nonetheless, it is possible that the right situation could shake Americans out of the corruption and decay into which the vast majority of us have fallen, or into which we have been pushed, faster than would have been thought possible.

To add insult to injury, Zombory-Moldován had trouble making ends meet. His military pay was stopped while on leave, and his civilian employer deemed him unfit to work, so he could not make money there either. As friends come to visit him, some grave, some facile, he sees how different things are. “Gradually, I was beginning to see the unadorned and harsh reality behind all the sympathy and the solemn extolling of heroism: ‘I’m glad you’re back, but I’m even gladder that I didn’t go, and I’ll do whatever it takes not to go.’ Below the surface and despite all show to the contrary, the reality was that everyone had become engaged in a determined, sullen fight for life. It was a fight waged in complete silence and secrecy, but was none the less fierce for all that.”

He departs the city, and goes to spend a few weeks with his uncle in a village in northern Hungary. This was traditional Hungarian peasant life (down to festive dinners with ludicrous amounts of food stuffed into you, including piles of cubes of pure fat you are expected to relish, inside hotbox peasant houses, an experience I have had personally, and which I don’t recommend, though it makes a good story). Then back to Croatia, to Lovrana, where a friend visits, and they try to figure out what is happening. “Well, the twentieth century hasn’t made a terribly encouraging start”—not only in war, but in the degradation of art. “Slogans chase each other round and round: ‘renewal,’ ‘youth forward,’ ‘new vision,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘impressionism,’ ‘naturalism’—a whirlwind of ‘isms,’ one succeeding the other, faster and faster. Each one serves only to heighten the confusion.” Unknown to the young Zombory-Moldován, none of this got better as the century passed, nor as the new century dawned. And at Easter, he returns to Budapest, to military service behind the lines (he administered, among other jobs, a camp for Russian prisoners of war), and there the book ends.

He spent the rest of his days living quietly, teaching until the Communists cashiered him, and then painting near the Balaton. His grandson saw him a few times in the 1960s, including when he visited London. In an interview he did for the launch of this book, he notes that his grandfather had “the air of a man used to being respected”; the picture below shows this well, and captures the Hungarian gentry, a class I expect has now entirely disappeared. No doubt Zombory-Moldován was an interesting man, if nobody special, just another man whom the twentieth century rolled over, making his life far different than it would have been otherwise. My grandfather was another such (born in 1902 in Budapest, and dying in 1999 in Indiana). It is hard for Americans to fathom.

But what does the life of Zombory-Moldován mean for us? Much more than one might think, in the sense that we can learn from it what we must not do in the current situation. That is to say, unlike him, we should resist any attempt by our Regime to place us in the same position that the King, Franz Jószef, placed him. In our own time, we may someday soon face the Regime trying to draft our young men, not in the national interest, but to serve the interests of the Regime, most of all the forced further spread of globohomo. It is common knowledge that military recruitment is experiencing catastrophic shortfalls, primarily of the backbone of America, white men from military families and cultures. This is the natural and inevitable result of the Regime’s open hatred of straight white men and of anyone not supportive of their filthy and destructive ways, so there is no surprise there. But even the Regime, dumber than a box of rocks, and dumber than the sum of its parts, realizes that it needs fighters—both to fight its wars of choice and to, if necessary, fight those whom the Regime oppresses, if they show any signs of resistance to the Regime’s ultimate plans of expropriation and extermination of the productive classes of our society.

There are two ways the Regime might get men to enter the ranks. The first is conscription; the second is incentivizing some of the millions of alien invaders the Regime has invited to America, most of them men of military age, to sign up voluntarily. We should be clear that any attempt to impose a draft would be wholly illegitimate, and that no possible negative response, none, would be unjustified. Many have pointed out that the sins of King George III were only a tiny fraction of the sins committed by our own oligarchs against Americans. Conscription would likely be the final nail in the coffin, making clear to all that the Regime is worthy only of being strangled and its corpse cast on the ash-heap of history (though no doubt a massive propaganda campaign, accompanying some ginned-up war, would herald the draft, so perhaps some would still be fooled). As it happens, I don’t think there’s going to be a draft—even the Regime’s myrmidons realize it would be dangerous to their power, and they also would not find it possible to exempt their own sons (and daughters, given their nasty anti-reality ideology). But if there were a draft, as I say, do not comply. And, of course, no actual American should volunteer for the military under any circumstances, no matter what propaganda is fed to us.

As to the aliens, men with no connection to heritage America and who can easily be taught to hate and kill heritage Americans, one of the main purposes of their recruitment, it is true that using barbarians in a dying empire’s military has a long, if not honorable, history. Leaving aside that it never ends well, in the long term, for those who initiate the process, I doubt this will be a winning strategy in America. Rather, it would accelerate the fracture. Even were there no open violence against us, heritage Americans seeing this process would have even less loyalty to the Regime, and were there open violence, the Regime and its mercenaries would quickly find that unwillingness to serve the Regime does not equate to lack of military competence and ability. No, I think this is one case where the Regime has no good options.

I am sure that Zombory-Moldován, man of a very different age, would find much of our present concerns incomprehensible. That’s not surprising; a great deal of ideological water has swept under the bridge in a hundred years. Our political systems are very different, and not better; we are now harvesting the bitter fruit of a century of stupidity. Whether we can get back someday to a placid, cultivated culture, similar to the one in which he was raised, we will see.


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