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There probably is a monograph by somebody, somewhere, on the single subject of Hungarian Jewry in the 20th century, from men of letters to political dissidents to economists to nuclear physicists. Think of the context: the cafe society of the twin cities of Buda and Pest, the end of Austro-Hungary, the cockpit of Bolshevism and fascism, the most ghastly closing scenes of the Final Solution and the first armed revolution against Stalin, all of this transmitted by a diaspora of the brilliant—and much of it mediated though a language that is almost impossible for an outsider to master.
In this demi-monde, the name of Arthur Koestler, who was born in Budapest on Sept. 5, 1905, would be pre-eminent. He is remembered today for his milestone novel Darkness at Noon and for his co-editing of the great anti-Stalinist collection of essays by disillusioned intellectuals The God That Failed. But he also wrote an imperishable series of memoirs relating his adventures and experiences in the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, the partition of Palestine (where he lived briefly) in 1947/8, and the intellectual combats that defined the Cold War from its inception.
Another such veteran, the German Victor Klemperer, once used the expression “a seismic people” to define the embattled Jews of that period in history. Koestler’s life often seems to have registered the 20th century, on a personal Richter scale, in advance. His first allegiance was to Zionism, but he laid it aside, rather than gave it up, on encountering a communist ideology that seemed more universal (and possibly no less messianic: Koestler was always very frank about the religionlike role that Marxism played in his life). He witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany, went as a believer to the USSR in a time of purges and famines, and was sent as a Comintern agent to Spain. There he endured the first of many spells in prison—this one under sentence of death from Gen. Franco. Released after an international campaign, he acted as a brilliant propagandist for the communist cause until the signing of a pact between Hitler and Stalin, which broke his main spring.
From the first page of Darkness at Noon you become aware that the daily realization of impending execution is a powerful stimulus, both to reflection and to fatalism. Koestler’s chief character, Nicholas Rubashov, is modeled on those former Bolshevik intellectuals who made full “confessions” of fantastic and abominable crimes at the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. And, because Koestler had by no means forgotten what he had learned about the dialectic, he decided to place Rubashov in a dilemma from which he himself had escaped. What if the opponent of Stalin is still half-convinced that Stalin is morally wrong but may be “historically” right? He may decide to put his name on the confession and hope that history will one day vindicate him. His last duty to the Party may, in other words, be suicide.
We now know that this is not how the confession of Nikolai Bukharin, for example, was in fact obtained. Stalin’s men employed less subtle means of inducement and persuasion. But we do not know that this paradox was not alive in Bukharin’s own mind, even at the end. If you once accept a certain logic of history, how can you exempt yourself from it? Apart from Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, there is no finer example in fiction of a pitiless interrogator facing a victim with the intention of saving his soul. Indeed, the teamwork of the two questioners, Ivanov and Gletkin, is so logically and artistically represented that it actually had the effect of converting some people to communism! Rubashov has one fatal weakness, which is that of the open-minded intellectual: “the familiar and fatal constraint to put himself in the position of his opponent, and to see the scene through the other’s eyes.” His dogmatist jailers suffer from no such disadvantage. This is a crux that has relevance well beyond the time and place in which it was set. Orwell’s more widely read Nineteen Eighty Four, which has many points of similarity with Darkness at Noon, makes the same terrifying point that the fanatics don’t just want you to obey them: They want you to agree with them.
Throughout the novel, Koestler is at pains to stress the similarity of totalitarianism to religion and to make the related comparison between dissent and heresy. It was actually his co-editor, Richard Crossman, who came up with the title The God That Failed for the anthology that included the ex-communists Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, and many others. Memorable though the title proved to be, a better one might have been Another God That Failed. For the rest of his life, Koestler swung between various forms of rationalism and pseudo-science. He was one of those people who is so intelligent and polymathic—and, one suspects, so easily bored—that no topic could detain him for long. He retained his attachment to the state of Israel, but he also wrote a book on the Khazars, in which he favored the theory that many Jews originate from the conversion to Judaism of this now-lost population on the frontiers of Persia and Armenia. If anthropologically valid, this would mean that they had no ancestral connection with historic Palestine. (I remember a communist enemy of Koestler’s pointing this out with some bitterness, saying that he had yet again adopted a cause only to betray it …)
Koestler’s personal life was disordered by drink and womanizing—in fact he has posthumously been accused of at least one rape, so here the term “womanizing” might be even sillier and more euphemistic than it usually is—and toward the end he began to flirt with fringe ideas about the so-called “paranormal,” publishing some absurd texts. The end was bad: Shattered by Parkinson’s disease, Koestler committed suicide along with his wife in 1983. But he left behind him a body of work that will always be absorbing and challenging to anyone who admires men of principle or who enjoys the battle of ideas for its own sake.