On The Nature Of Dictatorships: Top Historian Mária Schmidt On The Legacy Of Imre Kertész

Imre Kertész, Hungary’s first and, to date, only Nobel Prize-winning novelist has passed away at the age of 86. In memory of the celebrated author, we are republishing an essay by leading Hungarian historian Mária Schmidt on Mr. Kertész, which was originally published in a collection of essays entitled “All is Moving on the Western Front” (2014).


The English-language Kindle edition of the book, published by the 
Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society, is available here.


A civilization which does not express its values clearly or turns its back on these expressed values is embarking on the road to destruction or senile decay.

Imre Kertész

During the time of the preparatory work of the exhibition of the House of Fates, thinking about the nature of dictatorships, I have been reading two volumes of Imre Kertész published by Magvető over and over again. The Depressing Heritage of Europe (Európa nyomasztó öröksége) first appeared in 2008, while Save as…: Notes from 2001-2003 (Mentés másként, feljegyzések 2001-2003-ból) was first published in 2011. In these writings of Kertész the common experiences of both the Nazi and Communist dictatorships appear in a concentrated form. They are highly instructive, as they can enrich and make every one of us more sensitive. Nevertheless, it is curious and hardly explainable at the same time that the thoughts, sharp-as-a-needle analyses and conclusions drawn by the only Hungarian Nobel Prize-winning novelist from Hungary’s recent past barely reach the level of public discourse and debates. This might be so, because, on the one hand, for those who read and understand him, his arguments and explanations interpret the common historical experience we went through together with such a convincing force that they do not deem it necessary to enter into the kind of public discourse merely scratching the surface. On the other hand, those who do enter into public discourse do not read Kertész, do not know his arguments, and spare no time at all to formulate their thoughts with regard to his writings.

The autobiographical novel entitled The First Man remained for long a manuscript, and was only published in 1994, that is, thirty-four years after the death of its author, Albert Camus, one of Kertész’s favorite writers and his role model. The publication of this work written by the writer who died in a car accident in 1960 was postponed for this long so that the enemies of the deceased cannot use the unfinished work as the basis of additional attacks. This precaution was necessary because Camus had been almost totally isolated long before his death in his country, because he turned against the French Left that included adherents of Socialism who supported Communism. His self-imposed, but all the more painful outcastness was not eased by the Nobel Prize, which he received three years before his death. On the contrary, this distinction even made it more serious. After he received the prize, he would not only have enemies and attackers against him; he was also envied by many. It was not considered a forgivable sin that Camus clearly recognized and unmasked the true nature of Communist dictatorship. Neither was it forgivable that he took sides with the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Therefore, it is no surprise that the way Kertész writes and thinks is similar to that of Camus’s. Kertész received the Nobel Prize in 2002, as a result of which he has been envied by as often and by as many people as Camus before him. “I have never experienced as much vileness as since I was announced as a Nobel Prize-winner”, he writes.[1] Nevertheless, due to his views on the two dictatorships, he had no chance to be admitted to the canon of admired writers and intellectuals, dominated by left-liberals. “I am being insulted by the Hungarian Nazis, who include a number of Jews. Two ‘official Jews’, a Polish-German one called Reich-Ranicki and Paul Lendvai, a former Stalinist idling around in Austria, stated that the Nobel Prize should not have been given to me, but to somebody else.[2] Kertész remained an outsider during the entire period of the Communist dictatorship. Thus, he observed the system from the bottom and from the outside, just as he experienced Nazi dictatorship from the bottom and from the outside and as a persecuted person at the same time. This latter dictatorship marked him with the yellow star, outcasted him, and deported him first to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald. He dedicated his oeuvre to understanding and making people understand the lessons to be learned from the experiences of the two inhumane dictatorships. This was in contradiction with the ban imposed by “politically correct” intellectuals on judging the two dictatorships comparable and became rather inconvenient for the neophytes who swiftly discovered their deep commitment to democracy after the collapse of ‘existing socialism’. Another aspect in which he opposed the intelligentsia who regarded themselves dominant was that he clearly saw their special role in the maintenance, legitimization and operation of the dictatorship, and refused to ignore it and keep silent. He did not grant relief to the “theoretical intellectuals” who served the dictatorships and remained blind to reality or experience because they had been entirely captured by the world of ideologies. Kertész saw it clearly that these intellectuals could only feel at ease in the closed, ideology-driven societies, where they could guarantee their careers and privileges in return for deals and compromises. Therefore, very much like Camus, rather than joining the choir of those serving and legitimizing the dictatorships, he opted for the voluntary, though much suffered intellectual exile, as a result of which he lived most of his life in isolation. This was especially painful for him after Communism had collapsed, because public discourse was still dominated by the intellectuals who, unlike him, saw the termination of the closed world of dictatorship as a fall rather than liberation. The knowledge that enabled them to get by, survive and build a career in that closed society was worth nothing in the world of freedom. They were not needed anymore; they became unsettled, and thus aggressive and malicious. “They became aliens in a completely new situation, where they were faced with challenges requiring only rational answers and actions.”[3] Clearly enough, those intellectuals who served the single-party state and went even as far as acting as informants, attempted to blur the borderline between the servants and the opponents of the dictatorship and discredit those who preserved their integrity. “Jewish secret policemen are always angry with me, because they think they have already paid the price of survival – they became secret policemen now persecuting their fellow-sufferers – while there existed another way of survival as well, that of purity, and therefore they will never forgive the pure.”[4] So in the newly liberated country Kertész could not expect this elite of intellectuals to acknowledge or respect him any more than before, therefore he tried to go abroad where he would be “liked”. In the meantime, of course, he knew too well that the interest and “love” of his hosts were only addressed to him as a guest, and only as long as he kept a reasonable distance from the internal affairs of the host country. So why would he not do so? Because the greater the resentment and indignity he felt due to the lack of love from his homeland grew, the more difficult it was to bear ignorance and incomprehension, the more important attention and recognition by the external world became. Eventually, at a certain point, Kertész, who had always been extremely attentive to seeing his situation and role clearly, raised the question: are all those acknowledgments and gestures addressed to him as a writer, or could there be some political considerations in the background? And no matter how ungrounded or unjustified this doubt was, he already made up his mind at the moment he raised that question. He had to come home. Moreover, he had to announce that he was reluctant to become a Holocaust clown:

“Zeit: In the past two decades you have appeared as the hero of German remembrance culture, a popular speaker of commemorations, a celebrated Auschwitz survivor. And now the entire world can learn from your journal that you have always felt as a “Holocaust clown”.

Kertész: This is what we are heading for.

Zeit: Do you feel that in Germany remembrance has gone towards some kind of a Holocaust business a little bit?

Kertész: Not a little bit, completely.”[5]


On the Holocaust

Kertész is right in saying that in Hungarian public discourse concerning the Holocaust, which has been a key topic in Hungarian public life, “in no context am I ever mentioned and my sentences are never referred to, as if I had never written about the subject or never existed. They have sentenced me to non-existence, and it is mostly the Jewish and liberal authors that I have in mind here.”[6] “In Hungary it is possible to talk about the Holocaust, even the art of the Holocaust, without mentioning my name. It is as if I had never done anything about this issue. What is their problem with me? First: personal hatred and jealousy. Second: my radical way of thinking. Third: I have experience, so they cannot lie to me because I was there, and from a business point of view this could be considered rather harmful by the young and extremely untalented but all the more ambitious generation of Holocaust liars, who rely on sentimentalism, assimilative dictatorship and profit-oriented business.”[7]

The reason behind ignoring Kertész in public discourse is that in the experience of the Holocaust Kertész has been looking for the universal truth, whereas opinionists dominating public discourse insist on the particulars. “I have never tried to regard the issue called ‘the Holocaust’ as a kind of irresolvable conflict between the Germans and the Jews; I have never believed that it is the latest chapter in the history of Jewish suffering as a logical sequel to the former trials; I have never seen it as a single derailment of the so-called history, or a pogrom of a larger volume than the earlier ones, or as a precondition of the establishment of a Jewish state. What I have recognized in the Holocaust is the human condition, the end-station of the great adventure the European man reached after two thousand years of ethical and moral culture.”[8]

“The main point here is not what happened to the Jewish people but what happened to European values” [9], he claims. The path he has taken is different also because he thinks that “the Holocaust does not divide but unite us, because it increasingly shows the universal nature of the experience.”[10] However, after seventy years, those who roar about the Holocaust still focus on what divides and turns people against one another. They deprive grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their right to see each other as compatriots and brothers or sisters rather than the descendants of delinquents and victims. Kertész speaks about the value-creating capacity of the Holocaust, while they speak of the impossibility of shared mourning. “The Holocaust is a value, because it has led to immensurable knowledge through immensurable suffering, and thus it has immensurable moral reserves”[11], he writes.  Since by now “the Jewish issue has become a matter of conscience in Europe, Europe and the Holocaust, the Holocaust and European mentality are somehow interrelated.”[12] In this European mentality Auschwitz has become a universal allegory: “it bears the seal of eternity; its mere name encompasses the entire world of Nazi concentration camps and how it shocked the universal spirit, and its mythicized scene must be preserved so that pilgrims can visit it.”[13] Then he comes to the conclusion that “Auschwitz and everything that belongs to it (but is there anything that does not?) have been the greatest trauma of European humanity since the Cross, although it may take decades or even centuries until this is realized.”[14]


On the Gulag

“The Nazis had to be survived. During Bolshevism, however, there was no hope for survival; the regime did not seem to ever come to an end. But I never accepted its existence. I did not fit in with its ideology, I did not speak its language, and I never settled in so-called normal life.”[15] It was of moral consideration that Kertész refused to collude with the Communist regime, which denied morals. This time it was his own decision to stay outside, it was not his persecutors that forced him into this situation because of his origin. He was not that outcast and deported child anymore, either. He took his decision as an adult, accepting its consequences. “Thus I was able to observe, not as a child this time but as an adult, how a dictatorship functions. I saw how an entire nation could be made to deny its ideals, and watched the early, cautious moves toward accommodation. I understood that hope is an instrument of evil, and Kantian categorical imperative – ethics in general – is but the pliable handmaiden of self-preservation.”[16] To him both dictatorships became manifestations of the same unacceptable inhumane oppression. The only outstanding experience was that of 1956, the moment of delirious and nation-unifying standing up for freedom. The lack of freedom in the preceding and subsequent decades compelled him – just like everyone else – to make a choice. “Shall we be slaves or men set free? This is the question, answer me!” He had no alternative. As the former resident of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald camps, he could not afford to become a slave again, especially at his own choice. He had to keep and he did keep his freedom. Therefore, he chose to take the only reasonable path: internal emigration.  “The nausea and depression to which I awoke each morning led me at once into the world I intended to describe. I had to discover that I had placed a man groaning under the logic of one type of totalitarianism in another totalitarian system, and this turned the language of my novel into a highly allusive medium. If I look back now and size up the situation I was in at the time honestly, I have to conclude that in the West, in a free society, I probably would not have been able to write the novel known by readers today as ‘Fateless’, the novel singled out by the Swedish Academy for the highest honor… It makes me especially happy to be expressing these thoughts in my native language: Hungarian. I was born in Budapest, in a Jewish family, whose maternal branch hailed from the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (Cluj) and the paternal side from the southwestern corner of the Lake Balaton region. My grandparents still lit the Sabbath candles every Friday night, but they changed their name to a Hungarian one, and it was natural for them to consider Judaism their religion and Hungary their homeland. My maternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust; my paternal grandparents’ lives were destroyed by Mátyás Rákosi’s Communist rule, when Budapest’s Jewish old age home was relocated to the northern border region of the country. I think this brief family history encapsulates and symbolizes this country’s modern-day travails. What it teaches me, though, is that there is not only bitterness in grief, but also extraordinary moral potential. Being a Jew to me is once again, first and foremost, a moral challenge. If the Holocaust has by now created a culture, as it undeniably has, its aim must be that an irredeemable reality give rise by way of the spirit to restoration – a catharsis. This desire has inspired me in all my creative endeavors.[17]

The two totalitarian dictatorships tormenting the twentieth century either as allies or as enemies gave Kertész the very same experience. “One of them appears as a savior with the devil lurking under its gown, while the other dresses as if it was Satan, and it actually is”[18], he claimed. This experience also entailed the way the Communist dictatorship treated the memory of the Holocaust.  Since it did not tolerate talking about the Holocaust, the persecution and suffering of Jewish people during Nazism.  “I have never heard an acceptable explanation why the Soviet regime and its affiliated dictatorships did not tolerate even the pure thought of the Holocaust. Why the Stalinist dictatorship identified itself with Nazi totalitarianism on this issue – among others – seems to be too obvious to try and find an explanation for. In fact, this is how Stalin reserved his right to genocide: he did not want to allow any sympathy to emerge for possible future victims in his empire.”[19]

Therefore, the comparison of the two totalitarian dictatorships led Kertész to recognize the basically common traits even if he does not overlook the “differentia specifica”, which is the culture-creating power of the Nazi Holocaust. It is an open question whether we are or will be able to incorporate the Gulag into the spirit of the “narrative” about our life and human condition. All in all, Kertész can draw no other conclusion than that “deportation from human existence; misery, hunger, slavery and death in Recsk are the same as in Dachau; nor is there any difference between Kolima and Mauthausen in this respect… There is no way of measuring suffering, no degrees for injustice. Both the Gulag and the network of Nazi camps were set up for the same purpose, and the millions of victims bear evidence of its fulfillment”[20], he argues.

The 85-year-old Imre Kertész is a free man. He remained one during and despite both inhumane totalitarian dictatorships. And he still is.

God bless him.

[1] Save as…, p. 184.

[2] Save as…, p. 182.

[3] The Depressing Heritage…, pp. 126-127.

[4] Save as…, p. 179.


[6] Save as…, p. 45.

[7] Save as…, p. 61.

[8] Speech delivered in Stockholm when Kertész received his Nobel Prize,

[9] Save as…, p. 64.

[10] The Depressing Heritage…, p. 59.

[11] The Depressing Heritage…, p. 84.

[12] The Depressing Heritage…, p. 49 and p. 59.

[13] The Depressing Heritage…, p. 43.

[14] The Depressing Heritage…, p. 91.

[15] Save as…, p. 85.

[16] Speech delivered in Stockholm when Kertész received his Nobel Prize,

[17] Speech delivered in Stockholm when Kertész received his Nobel Prize,

[18] The Depressing Heritage…, p. 46.

[19] The Depressing Heritage…, p. 39 and p. 57.

[20] The Depressing Heritage…, p. 52.