Sándor Márai, born in Kassa, Austria-Hungary (now Košice, Slovakia) in 1900, has been one of the most popular Hungarian writers both in Hungary and abroad since being (re)discovered following the fall of communism. He was one of the few 20th-century Hungarian thinkers and creators who managed to retain his intellectual independence amid the intense nationalist-internationalist polarization of politics in Hungary.
How was Márai able to preserve his independence of thought while nearly all of his peers failed?
He left the country.
Márai left Hungary along with his wife and adopted son through the final small opening in the Iron Curtain in August 1948, eventually moving to the United States, where he spent most of the remaining 40 years of his life writing in splendid isolation, far away from the uncompromising force of Hungarian politics. Márai was certainly not the only Hungarian writer to leave Hungary in search of creative freedom, though he was one of the few who had not lost his intellectual independence before leaving the country and did not cease to write important Hungarian literature after leaving the country.
Márai distanced himself equally from both the nationalist Horthy régime that ruled Hungary from 1920 to 1944 and the communist Rákosi régime that seized power in the country in the years 1947–1948. The following excerpts from Márai’s 1943–1944 journal reveal his attitude toward the interwar Horthy régime, which he referred to as “neo-baroque fascism” (source in Hungarian):
What happened here for 25 years? A confederation of interests in defense of feudal landed-estates, which under the pretense of Trianon prolonged for 25 years a system that oppressed and appropriated all quality endeavors with more and less delicate forms of terror. Everybody who could rightfully be suspected of wanting quality was a Jew or a suspected Jew or had a Jewish wife or was a decadent Anglophile and Francophile, Freemason and communist (source in Hungarian).
Over a period of 25 years—in a national, social and moral sense!—we wrote everything in only half-sentences; the other half of the sentence remained in the pen and in the nervous systems of the writers. That refined intellectual reign of terror which worked not with gallows and billy clubs, but for a quarter of a century conducted the concert of the Hungarian spirit with a wink and a wave from a signet-ringed functionary (source in Hungarian).
Márai held the Horthy régime, not the Arrow Cross, to be primarily responsible for the ravages of war and persecution that afflicted Hungary during the Second World War as the following entry from his 1945 journal shows:
It is not true that the Arrow Cross is the chief culprit. The Arrow Cross was simply the result of all that this society did over the past 25 years so that it could validate itself without culture, morality or ability. The Arrow Cross horde is only as guilty as the Hungarian leadership class, which under the cloak of constitutionality shamelessly fanned and encouraged reaction of every type during the 25 years of Horthy (source in Hungarian).
The following excerpts from Márai’s 1942 “Pamphlet on the Issue of National Education” and 1972 Memoir of Hungary reveal his attitude toward the communist system that established itself throughout eastern Europe following the Second World War:
The 20-year Soviet experiment has doubtlessly proven during this war that the strictest political education and the ruthless denial of all demands of individual life have built an enormous social and military organization in Mongolized Soviet-Russia. . . . Though it has also proven that this Bolshevik exertion also absorbs the entire content of individual life and deprives people of all the rewards and values of life, without which it ceases to have true meaning for the European man, whether he be a philosopher in Königsberg or a gutter cleaner in London (source in Hungarian).
An immense people turned the course of world history with dreadful sacrifice at Stalingrad. . . .and today I encountered one of the embodiments of this great power. For many, for those persecuted by the Nazis, this young Russian brought liberation of sorts, escape from Nazi terror. But he could not have brought liberty, because he doesn’t have any (source in Hungarian).
Márai realized that he had to leave Hungary in order to preserve his freedom of thought and creation after the Hungarian Workers’ Party established a one-party dictatorship during the summer of 1948. Márai wrote the following with regard to his decision to emigrate in his 1944-1948 Memoir of Hungary:
I’ve got to leave this beautiful, sad, smart and colorful city, Budapest, because if I stay I will drift into the aggressive stupidity that surrounds me here. And I must take with me from here something which is perhaps an obsession: the “ego,” the personality of which there is only one copy (source in Hungarian).
This was the time when I realized I would have to leave my country; I had to leave it not just because the Communists would not let me write freely, but mainly and even much more so because they would not let me be silent freely (source in English).
The question is: when are the contemporary equivalents of Márai, Hungarian writers, artists and intellectuals who want to retain their freedom of thought and creation amid the stifling authoritarian mendacity of the Orbán II era, going to follow his footsteps?