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Arthur Koestler’s Brutal Genius

Theodore Dalrymple has a great essay in this month's City Journal on the life and work of Arthur Koestler, another Hungarian Jew from the Golden Age sprawl. I'm not sure I agree with Dalrymple that Koestler's more remembered today as … Read More

By / May 10, 2007

Theodore Dalrymple has a great essay in this month's City Journal on the life and work of Arthur Koestler, another Hungarian Jew from the Golden Age sprawl. I'm not sure I agree with Dalrymple that Koestler's more remembered today as a rapist (the Cesarani biography, which I haven't read, apparently makes a strong case). His name will always be synonymous with anti-Communism, and his status as a prophet of Soviet tyranny was too hard-won to be diminished even by such grievous personal failings.

Koestler actually took up Communism at an adolescent age; shelved it in favor of Zionism, then returned to it wholeheartedly. He claims to have been electrified as a child by Bela Kun's savage reign in Hungary, which was seen by many Hungarian Jews as a way forward after the ravages of the First World War, which left the country governed by a weak democratic coalition. Kun's brief radical nightmare was shortly followed by a proto-fascist one led by an ex-Prussian military officer named Miklos Horthy. (Hungary was then made a plaything for both Hitler and Stalin, so it's no wonder that native Jews who emigrated — first to Vienna, then to London or New York — suffered from an acute case of ideological michegaas.)

One slight emendation I'd make to Dalrymple's piece: The conventional wisdom is that Koestler's Rubashov, the protagonist of Darkness at Noon, was modeled on Nikolai Bukharin. There are definite similarities between either man's Party tenure and ultimate Party demise. However, Robert Conquest has argued that in terms of style and disposition, Rubashov more closely resembles the Bulgarian aristrocrat and ex-Trotskyist Christian Rakovsky, who was also purged but didn't go to shambles quite the way Bukharin did. (Judging by Trotsky's memoir, Bukharin was neurotic and lachrymose long before he became an Enemy of the People.)

Anyway, Koestler is rarity in another crucial respect: He was one of the few 20th century figures to use that tricky customer moral equivalence — in this case, between Nazism and Stalinism — to enlightening, rather than stupefying, effect. The following stave from his 1943 novel Arrival and Departure is almost exactly like a conversation had between a Nazi and an Old Bolshevik in Vasily Grossman's suppressed 1960 masterpiece of World War II, Life and Fate:

There is of course a certain affinity between your ex-fatherland and ours. Both are governed by authoritarian state bureaucracies on a collectivist basis; both are streamlined police states run by economic planning, the one-party system and scientific terror. . . . It is a phase of history as inevitable as was the spreading of the feudal, and later of the capitalist, system. Our two countries are merely the forerunners of the post-individualist, post-liberal era.

Now here's the Obersturmbannfuhrer Liss interrogating the Russian POW Mostovskoy:

“A red workers’ flag flies over our People’s State too. We too call people to national Achievement, to Unity and Labour. We say, ‘The Party expresses the dream of the German worker’; you say, ‘Nationalism! Labour!’ You know as well as we do that nationalism is the most powerful force of our century. Nationalism is the soul of our epoch. And ‘Socialism in One Country’ is the supreme expression of nationalism…

“You know Lenin personally. He created a new type of party. He was the first to understand that only the Party and its Leader can express the spirit of the nation. He did away with the Constituent Assembly. But just as Maxwell destroyed Newton’s system of mechanics while thinking he had confirmed it, so Lenin considered himself a builder of internationalism while in actual fact he was creating the great nationalism of the twentieth century… And we learnt many things from Stalin. To build Socialism in One Country, one must destroy the peasants’ freedom to sow what they like and sell what they like. Stalin didn’t shilly-shally—he liquidated millions of peasants. Our Hitler saw that the Jews were the enemy hindering the German National Socialist movement. And he liquidated millions of Jews. But Hitler’s no mere student; he a genius in his own right. And he’s not one to be squeamish either. It the was the Roehm purge that gave Stalin the idea for the purge of the Party in 1937…You must believe me. You’ve kept silent while I’ve been talking, but I know that I’m like a mirror for you—a surgical mirror.”

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