Hungarian by nationality, Catholic by faith, Jewish by birth — Antal Szerb was capable of touching the boundaries of intense seriousness bordering on the mystical (as in Journey by Moonlight) or magical (The Pendragon Legend) even though he is probably better known as paragon and only member of the interwar neofrivolist school of literature.
Here he is at his frivolous best with a novel about the monarch of a Ruritanian kingdom in crisis who abdicates and escapes to Venice incognito, where he falls in with a crowd of confidence tricksters who ultimately, unaware of the ex-king’s true identity, force him to impersonate himself.
In Oliver VII, romance, intrigue, and the perpetual allure of the genteel portion of the criminal class all combine in an enjoyable farce.
– Ross Douthat’s sensitive and thoughtful commentary on the state of the Catholic church (in the New York Times, of all places) has previously sparked apoplexy on the part of liberals, hilariously inspiring a host of bien-pensant establishment lefties to point out he has “no professional qualifications for writing on the subject”.
In a recent blog post, Douthat points out how difficult it is to engage in dialogue with lefty Catholic thinking given that it often assumes we can reinterpret anything whenever we want while ignoring centuries of fervent intellectual inquiry and church teaching. For these liberals, it is always Catholicism: Year Zero.
– The British writer Tibor Fischer is no conservative, but he’s often written how ridiculous it is for people to claim the Viktor Orbán is a dictator, whether in the Guardian or in Standpoint. (I myself had to take to the pages of the Irish Times to defend the Hungarian PM.)
Now Fischer writes in the Telegraph asserting that Viktor Orbán is no fascist: he’s David Cameron’s best chance at reforming the European Union.
– Still in Hungary, the British Embassy in Budapest is moving out of its home of nearly seventy years and into the recently vacated Dutch embassy.
– Everyone loves the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Alex Massie says. But still no one will vote for her.
– Agnostic Southern Episcopalian chain-smoking monarchist with a penchant for misanthropy: Florence King, RIP.
– Speaking of misanthropy, is Groucho Marx’s humour nihilist? Shon Arieh-Lerer thinks Lee Siegel’s book might be overthinking things a bit.
– And finally, the United Nations Library in New York has announced which of its books was checked out the most often in 2015: Immunity of heads of state and state officials for international crimes.
SIPPING a postprandial Coke last week while flipping through the Irish Times, my wandering eye was drawn towards that newspaper’s report on the Madrid congress of the European People’s Party, the grouping of Christian-democratic and centre-right political parties across the European continent (Madrid congress provides forum for delegates from EU centre-right parties, Suzanne Lynch, Irish Times, 22 October 2015). The correspondent first elucidates some of the purpose of these pan-European gatherings before going on to summarise a number of the issues raised. She ends, however, on a bit of a downer by describing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “lurch to the far right”, evidenced by his “clampdown on media and internet freedoms, apparent support for the death penalty and hardline approach to refugees”.
This breezy litany of crimes is little more than shoddy journalism. The alleged “clampdown” refers to proposed internet legislation which has been withdrawn while other media laws requiring balance reflect the U.S. broadcasting rules rescinded under Ronald Reagan. The “apparent support” for capital punishment is another damp squib: Orbán called for it to be debated as intellectual speculation — a canny “dog-whistle” political move to gain votes without requiring any legislative action or serious challenge to the E.U. ban on the death penalty. (It was abolished in Hungary at the fall of communism and there are absolutely positively no government plans to bring it back.)
The refugees allegation was the most interesting, however. As it happened, I had attended a small meeting of British MPs and Hungarian foreign ministry officials the day before Ms Lynch’s report was printed. The Welsh MP David Davies gave his first-hand account of visiting the refugee camps near the Hungarian-Serb border and reported that refugees were being well-looked-after, with the quality of the facilities on the whole at least as good as when he was in the British Army, often better. An advisor from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry briefed us on the general situation, which has calmed down immensely since the Serb border has been more or less closed. He noted that broadcast media across the continent showed footage of Budapest police’s treatment of migrants gathered at the railway station without pointing out that the police were responding to violent attacks from a small minority of migrants.
Proprotionate self-defence for officers of the law is the norm across Europe, but this has mattered little when it comes to depictions of Hungary: the bien-pensant official groupthink is that anything Hungary does is wrong, so long as Fidesz is in power. Luckily some voices of dissent have emerged. The novelist Tibor Fischer — no conservative — described in The Guardian the media treatment of Hungary as “hysterical” and “ignorant nonsense”.
Anyhow, I felt obliged to send off my “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” to the Irish Times and it’s very good of their letters staff to print a diverging (if abridged) opinion. The last letter to any editor I succeeded in having printed was in the Times Literary Supplement in 2008 about P.G. Wodehouse’s career in banking at H.S.B.C. Who knows what the next shall bring…
In a speech to supporters at the Fidesz party’s fourteenth annual Kötcse picnic, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has claimed that the refugee crisis is a portent of the end of “the era of liberal babble”. The current “identity crisis” of liberalism, Orbán argued, presented both “huge risk” and “a new opportunity” to return to Christian and communal identities.
Mr Orbán said that the dominant liberal ideology had weakened Europe while preserving its wealth. “The most dangerous combination known in history is to be both rich and weak,” he argued. “It is only a matter of time before someone comes along, notices your weakness, and takes what you have.”
“The liberal philosophy is a result of a Europe which is weak and which also wants to protect its wealth; but if Europe is weak, it cannot protect this wealth.”
Mr Orbán also attacked the liberal imperialism of military intervention, asserting it has been based on fundamental hypocrisy and simplistic Manichean thinking: (more…)
Magyarophiles will be pleased to learn that L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, will begin appearing in Hungarian. The new edition will appear every other week as a four-page insert into Új Ember, the Hungarian Catholic weekly founded in 1945. “We are a small editorial staff,” Balázs Rátkai, editor-in-chief of the weekly, told L’Osservatore.
“However, our intention is to probe and to make our readers think. The collaboration with the Vatican daily is of historic importance for the life of the weekly and of the entire local Church; it not only brings the Universal Church and the Pope closer to us; it will also enrich readers, and through them all of Hungarian society, with new thoughts, opinions and answers.”
Printed as a daily broadsheet in Italian, the Vatican newspaper also has weekly tabloid editions in French, Spanish, English, German, and Portuguese, as well as a monthly version in Polish.
In Transylvania, a “flag war” has broken out between Romanian politicians and the representatives of the Hungarian-speaking Szekler people. As România Libera reports, no one is offended by flying the old Hapsburg flag over the fortress of Alba Iulia (De: Karlsburg, Hu: Gyulafehérvár), the Romanian government takes umbrage at the appearance of the blue-and-gold flag of the Szekler (or Székely) people who live primarily in three of Transylvania’s counties. (more…)
Hungary yesterday declared its sovereign primacy over the EU. In a heated dialogue between Tibor Navracsics and Commissioner Neelie Kroes, the Hungarian deputy PM staidly remarked that his country would not impose legislation which was contrary to its new constitution. The packed committee room gasped in horrified awe. Kroes was visibly furious as she stormed out, expressing her usual ‘grave concerns’ about Hungary.
Kroes had obviously been banking on Navracsics’s compliance with the Council of Europe’s recommendations, EU member states being bound to comply with the Council of Europe’s Fundamental Charter of Human Rights under the Treaty of Lisbon. The Hungarian government is under scrutiny from the EU for the possible breach of various articles of the Charter. When asked directly where his priorities lay in implementing recommendations, however, the founding member of the ruling Fidesz party stated “I’m a Hungarian member of parliament and I have sworn allegiance to the constitution of Hungary.” (more…)
TODAY IS THE first feast of Blessed Charles since the announcement last December that the cause for the canonisation of his wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, has been opened as well. In an age when most people in government and public leadership seem barely even decent, let alone saints, it is all the more important to seek the prayers and intercession of Charles and Zita — husband and wife, mother and father, Emperor and Empress — for the preservation of peace, the prevention of war, and the renovation of our families as well as our societies at large. (more…)
The Catholic philosopher and historian Thomas Molnar died last week in Virginia at eighty-nine years of age, just six days short of reaching his ninetieth year. Born Molnár Tamás in Budapest in 1921, the only son of Sandor and Aranka, Molnar was schooled across the Romanian border in the town of Nagyvárad (Rom.: Oradea) in the Körösvidék, a region often included in Transylvania and an integral part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon cleaved it a year before. In 1940 he moved to Belgium to begin his higher education in French, and as a leader in the Catholic student movement he was interned by the German occupiers and sent to Dachau. With the end of hostilities, he returned to Brussels before arriving home in Budapest to witness the gradual Communist takeover of Hungary.
Molnar left for the United States, where he earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1950. He frequently contributed to the pages of National Review after its foundation by William F. Buckley in 1955, and his periodic writings were often found in Monde et Vie, Commonweal, Modern Age, Triumph, and other journals. From 1957 to 1967 he taught French & World Literature at Brooklyn College before moving on to become Professor of European Intellectual History at Long Island University. In 1969 he was a visiting professor at Potchefstroom University in the Transvaal. In 1983 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Mendoza in Argentina while he was a guest professor at Yale. After the fall of the Communist regime in Hungary, he taught at the University of Budapest and at the Catholic University (PPKE). In 1995 he was elevated to the Hungarian Academy of Arts.
While his first book, Bernanos: his political thought and prophecy (1960), was well-received, it was Molnar’s second published work that was arguably his best known. The Decline of the Intellectual (1961) was, in Molnar’s own words, “greeted favorably by conservatives, with respectful puzzlement by the left, and was dismissed by the liberal progressives.” Gallimard began discussions to print a French translation as part of its prominent Idées series, before the publisher’s in-house Marxist Dionys Mascolo vetoed it for its treatment of Marxism as a utopian ideology. The celebrated & notorious Soviet spy Alger Hiss complimented it in a Village Voice review, but Molnar noted that The Decline of the Intellectual‘s harshest criticism came from liberal Catholic circles. “Obviously,” he wrote, “in that moment’s intellectual climate, they would have preferred a breathless outpouring of Teilhardian enthusiasm.”
The book argued, from a deeply conservative European mindset, that the rise of the intelligentsia during the nineteenth century was tied to its capacity as an agent of bourgeois social change. As the intellectual class increasingly shaped the more democratic, more egalitarian (indeed, more bourgeois) world around it, the intelligentsia’s vitality, so tied to its capability to enact social change (Molnar argued), became self-destructive. The “decline” set in as the intelligentsia searched for alternative methods of social redemption in increasingly extreme fashions (such as nationalism, socialism, communism, fascism, &c.) and led to the intellectuals allying themselves with ideology, which is the surest killer of genuine intellectual and philosophical speculation.
The same year Molnar’s The Future of Education was published with a foreword by Russell Kirk, whose study of American conservative thinkers, The Conservative Mind, was admired by Molnar. Among the many works that followed were Utopia, the perennial heresy (1967), The Counter-Revolution (1969), Nationalism in the Space Age (1971), L’éclipse du sacré : discours et réponses in 1986 with Alain Benoist, and the following year The Pagan Temptation refuting Benoist’s neo-paganism, The Church, Pilgrim of Centuries (1990), and in 1996 Archetypes of Thought and Return to Philosophy. From then until his death, the remainder of his new books have been published in his native Hungarian language.
Molnar and his work have become sadly neglected for the very reasons he detailed in his major work: the overwhelming triumph of ideology over the intellectual sphere. While Russell Kirk defined conservatism as the absence of ideology, modern conservatism in America has become almost completely enveloped by ideology, and the Molnar’s deep, traditional way of thinking — influenced to a certain extent by de Maistre and Maurras — is now met more by silence and ignorance than by direct condemnation.
The triumph of ideology (be it on the left or the right) was aided and abetted, Molnar argued, by a culture dominated by media and telecommunications. “Around 1960,” Professor Molnar wrote later in his life, “the power of the media was not yet what it is today.”
Hardly anybody suspected then that the media would soon become more than a new Ceasar, indeed a demiurge creating its own world, the events therein, the prefabricated comments, countercomments—and silence. … The more I saw of universities and campuses, publishers and journals, newspapers and television, the creation of public opinion, of policies and their outcome, the less I believed in the existence of the freedom of expression where this really mattered for the intellectual/professional establishment. For the time being, I saw more of it in Europe, anyway, than in America: over there, institutions still stood guard over certain freedoms and the conflict of ideas was genuine; over here the democratic consensus swept aside those who objected, and banalized their arguments. The difference became minimal in the course of decades.
Needless to say, the world of American conservatism has been silent in responding to the death of Professor Molnar.
Ideology’s enforced forgetfulness aside, Molnar’s native Hungary renewed its appreciation for him just before his death: last year the Sapientia theological college organised the first conference devoted to his works, which was well-attended and much commented-upon in the Hungarian press. Besides his serious corpus of works, Molnar is survived by his wife Ildiko, his son Eric, his stepson Dr. John Nestler, and his seven grandchildren.
In reverse chronological order, from the most recently viewed backwards.
|Ne touchez pas la hache (2007, France) — Based on Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais. I think we need more films set in Restoration France, but this one often fell flat.|
|Män som hatar kvinnor (2009, Sweden) — A journalist has six months to investigate the strange murder of a girl from the island estate of a prominent family. A very good mystery, though I had to fast-forward multiple times due to graphicness. Released in the U.S. as ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ instead of ‘Men Who Hate Women’.|
|The Night of the Generals (1967, Great Britain-France) — A quality production depicting the quest of a German officer to obtain justice in arresting a sociopathic general for the murder of a Polish prostitute. Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, Philippe Noiret, Christopher Plummer, Charles Gray, and Tom Courtenay.|
|Three Days of the Condor (1975, U.S.A.) — A literary analyst at a CIA front organisation returns to the office from lunch to find all his colleagues shot dead. Robert Redford and Max von Sydow.|
|Le combat dans l’île (1962, France) — A right-wing extremist thinks he’s assassinated a prominent left-wing extremist but soon finds not all is as it appears. Romy Schneider plays the woman caught between the would-be murderer and his typographer friend.|
|À bout de souffle (1960, France) — A rather lame romanticisation of a cop-murderer and his exploits from Jean-Luc Godard. Paris in the 1950s looks great though.|
|Defence of the Realm (1985, Great Britain) — A newspaper exposes a Member of Parliament as a potential spy, but it turns out the story is much more complicated than first appearances would have it. Starring Gabriel Byrne, Ian Bannen, Greta Scacchi, Denholm Elliott, Bill Paterson, and Robbie Coltrane.|
|A Few Days in September (2006, France) — An intriguing spy drama set in the days leading up to September 11th, a French spy (Juliette Binoche) is minding the grown children of an old ex-C.I.A. agent (Nick Nolte) pursued by a psychotic assasin (John Torturro).|
|50 Dead Men Walking (2008, Great Britain-U.S.A.-Canada) — Based on the story of terrorist-turned-informer Martin McGartland, with Ben Kingsley playing his RUC handler.|
|The Red Baron (2008, Germany) — A very light handling of an interesting historical character man. Everyone dresses well, but Joseph Fiennes as Billy Bishop, the Red Baron’s nemesis, is the least convincing fighter ace in history.|
|Ondskan (2003, Sweden) — A surprisingly good film in the boarding-school resistance-to-bullies category with a few twists, only slightly tinged by the socialism of the author of the novel on which it’s based.|
|L’Heure d’été (2008, France) — Three siblings deal with their mother’s estate.|
|Sink the Bismarck! (1960, Great Britain) — Cracking naval tale. A classic of the World War II genre.|
|The Count of Monte Cristo (2002, U.S.A.) — Significant changes from the plot of the book besides the usual compression of the story line mar this film. Just not as worthwhile as the lavishly done 1998 French mini-series.|
|On the Waterfront (1954, U.S.A.) — A priest tries to convince a mob lackey to testify against his bosses to challenge their murderous and abusive control of the waterfront. Particularly intriguing as the director was brave enough to challenge Hollywood communists in the 1950s.|
|Paris (2008, France) — The interweaving lives of a handful of Parisians. I will see any film that has Juliette Binoche or Mélanie Laurent in it, and this film has both. Also with François Cluzet (of “Ne le dis à personne/Tell No One”) and Albert Dupontel.|
|Mon Oncle (1958, France) — Jacques Tati’s first colour film, Monsieur Hulot continues to struggle with the postwar infatuation with modern architecture and consumerism. On its release it was condemned for its obviously reactionary world-view, but has since become a cult favourite.|
|Le Petit Lieutenant (2005, France) — A young police recruit from the provinces joins a Parisian precinct and investigates a murder alongside his female unit commander, a recovering alcoholic.|
|Les rivières pourpres (2000, France) — Jean Reno plays a police detective sent to a small university town in the Alps to investigate a brutal murder. Meanwhile, another detective (played by Vincent Kassel) looks into the desecration of the grave of a young girl. The plots soon become intertwined in an intriguing fashion. This film failed to live up to its potential (the university aspect could have been developed further) but is still a decent cop flick.|
|Buongiorno, notte (2003, Italy) — The kidnapping of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades.|
|Flammen & Citronen (2008, Denmark) — Another good Scandinavian World-War-II resistance movie, alongside Norway’s “Max Manus” of the same year. (Previously covered here). Mads Mikkelsen (the Bond villain in “Casino Royale”) plays ‘Citronen’.|
|Kontroll (2003, Hungary) — The ticket collectors of the Budapest Metro worry about a series of mysterious platform deaths. Varies between the comic, the thrilling, and the tiresome.|
|L’homme du train (2002, France) — A man steps off a train planning to rob a bank, but strikes up a friendship with a retired poetry teacher. Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday are a surprisingly good pairing.|
|Advise and Consent (1962, U.S.A.) — The Senate must either approve or reject the President’s nomination for Secretary of State, but plots and intrigues are afoot. Otto Preminger does Washington, and does it well.|
|The International (2009, U.S.A.-Germany-Great Britain) — A cracking conspiracy thriller staring Clive Owen as a stubborn Interpol investigator and Naomi Watts as a Manhattan Assistant D.A. Includes a fun shoot-out in the Guggenheim.|
|Banlieue 13 (2004, France) — Parkour-heavy action film set in a Parisian crime ghetto of the near-future.|
|Il divo (2008, Italy) — Biographical film of the seven-time Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. Toni Servillo’s portrayal of the main character, however, crosses the line into caricature.|
|Strajk – Die Heldin von Danzig (2006, Germany-Poland) — A German film in Polish about the hardest-working employee at the Gdansk shipyards who finally takes a stand against the horrendous working conditions under the Communist regime.|
In his column in the Daily Telegraph, former editor Charles Moore praises Miklos Banffy as ‘the Tolstoy of Transylvania’. Ardent Banffyites like yours truly are always pleased when the Hungarian novelist gets attention in the English-speaking world, which happens all too rarely. I can’t remember how on earth I stumbled upon the works of Banffy, probably through reading the Hungarian Quarterly, a publication that — covering art, literature, history, politics, science, and more — is admirably polymathic in our age where the specialist niche is worshipped.
Simply put, Miklos Banffy is a must-read. If you love Paddy Leigh Fermor’s telling of his youthful walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (the third and final installation of which we still await), then Miklos Banffy will be right up your alley. Start with his Transylvanian trilogy — They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided.
The story follows two cousins, the earnest Balint Abady and the dissolute László Gyeroffy, Hungarian aristocrats in Transylvania, and the varying paths they take in the final years of European civilization. The novels “are full of love for the way of life destroyed by the First World War,” Charles Moore points out, “but without illusion about its deficiencies.” Three volumes of nearly one-and-a-half thousand pages put together, they make for deeply, deeply rewarding reading, transporting you to the world that ended with the crack of an assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo, 1914.
After finishing his trilogy, Banffy’s autobiographical The Phoenix Land is worthwhile; some of the real events depicted shadow those in the fictional novels. As previously mentioned, it contains a description of the last Hapsburg coronation (that of Blessed Charles) and numerous amusing tales. After that, I’m afraid you will have to learn Hungarian, as I have neglected to do, as no more of this author’s oeuvre has yet been translated into English.
The following feuilleton was written before Hitler became the master of Germany. The scene is the Berlin Sportpalast, the largest indoor arena in the world when it opened in 1910 and, at this time, the setting for the rallies of the various political parties vying for control of the Weimar Republic.
On the night of the Horst Wessel commemoration Hitler speaks in the Berlin Sportpalast. People who have neither seen nor heard him will perhaps never fully understand the significance of the profoundly ominous mind-set that has developed in Germany since the war. The reality — Hitler’s version of reality and its full implications — goes far beyond anything you might read in the newspapers, or imagine. Here is that reality, drawn from the life. (more…)
Blessed Emperor Charles’s two homecomings to Hungary after the overthrow of the Hapsburgs are worthy of the greatest spy novels, except they are fact: the hushed secrecy and underground preparations, the airplane contracted under a false name, the disguises used to sneak over borders. In his first attempt, Charles — the Apostolic King of Hungary — made it all the way to Budapest, only to be persuaded to return to exile by the self-appointed regent, Admiral Horthy (a naval commander in what, by then, was a land-locked country).
The King’s second attempt to reclaim his power was much more considered and deliberate, and he spent some time securing a loyal power base of local nobility before pressing on to Budapest by armoured railway train. The King’s force made it to just outside of the Hungarian capital before they were overwhelmed by troops loyal to Horthy — who, in order to maintain their loyalty, neglected to inform the soldiers and officers that the “rebels” they were fighting were actually those of their King and Queen.
Along his path to the capital, the King was greeted by fervent crowds, and stopped at least twice to review small detachments of troops and to show himself in person to his loyal Hungarian subjects. The King had returned, but sadly not for long. After the failure of this second attempt, the Allied powers refused to allow the Imperial & Royal family to remain in mainland Europe, and exiled them to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where the Emperor-King grew ill and eventually died. He is entombed on the island today — a source of great pride, I am told, to the Madeirans.
Elsewhere: Miracle Attributed to Blessed Charles (Norumbega)
A reader notes in correspondence that Franz Joseph was not always old — though the popular conception certainly is of the Emperor in his later years. Here is the young Franz Joseph (or Ferenc József), just five years after he became Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Bohemia, &c. The Emperor became so at such a young age because his father, Ferdinand I, abdicated after the revolts of 1848.
This portrait is by the Hungarian painter Miklós Barabás, who also completed portraits of the composer Franz Liszt, the novelist Baron József Eötvös de Vásárosnamény, William Tierney Clark, the Bristol engineer responsible for Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge, and many, many others.
by JOHN ZMIRAK
As I’m writing this column at the tail end of my first trip to Vienna, some of you who’ve read me before might expect a bittersweet love note to the Habsburgs — a tear-stained column that splutters about Blessed Karl and “good Kaiser Franz Josef,” calls this a “pilgrimage” like my 2008 trip to the Vatican, and celebrates the dynasty that for centuries, with almost perfect consistency, upheld the material interests and political teachings of the Church, until by 1914 it was the only important government in the world on which the embattled Pope Pius X could rely for solid support. Then I’d rant for a while about how the Empire was purposely targeted by the messianic maniac Woodrow Wilson, whose Social Gospel was the prototype for the poison that drips today from the White House onto the dome of Notre Dame.
And you would be right. That’s exactly what I plan to say — so dyed-in-the-wool Americanists who regard the whole of the Catholic political past as a dark prelude to the blazing sun that was John Courtenay Murray (or John F. Kennedy) might as well close their eyes for the next 1,500 words — as they have to the past 1,500 years.
But as I bang that kettle drum again, I want to set two scenes, one from a fine and underrated movie, the other from my visit. The powerful historical drama “Sunshine” (1999) stars Ralph Fiennes as three successive members of a prosperous Jewish family in Habsburg Budapest. The film was so ambitious as to try portraying the broad sweep of historical change — and, as a result, it was not especially popular. What historical dramas we moderns tend to like are confined to the tale of a single hero, and how he wreaks vengeance on the villains with English accents who outraged the woman he loved. “Sunshine”, on the other hand, tells the vivid story of the degeneration of European civilization in the course of a mere 40 years. The Sonnenschein family are the witnesses, and the victims, as the creaky multinational monarchy ruled by the tolerant, devoutly Catholic Habsburgs gives way through reckless war to a series of political fanaticisms — all of them driven by some version of Collectivism, which the great Austrian Catholic political philosopher Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn calls “the ideology of the Herd.”
From a dynasty that claimed its legitimacy as the representative of divine authority at the apex of a great, interconnected pyramid of Being in which the lowliest Croatian fisherman (like my grandpa) had liberties guaranteed by the same Christian God who legitimated the Kaiser’s throne, Central Europe fell prey to one strain after another of groupthink under arms: From the Red Terror imposed by Hungarian Bolsheviks who loved only members of a given social class, to radical Hungarian nationalists who loved only conformist members of their tribe, to Nazi collaborationists who wouldn’t settle for assimilating Jews but wished to kill them, finally to Stalinist stooges who ended up reviving tribal anti-Semitism. The exhaustion at the film’s end is palpable: In the same amount of time that separates us today from President Lyndon Johnson, the peoples of Central Europe went from the kindly Kaiser Franz Josef through Adolf Hitler to Josef Stalin. Call it Progress.
Apart from a heavily bureaucratic empire that spun its wheels preventing its dozens of ethnic minorities from cleansing each other’s villages, what was lost with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy? For one thing, we lost the last political link Western Christendom had with the heritage of the Holy Roman Empire. (Its crown stands today in the Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg, and for me it’s a civic relic.) Charlemagne’s co-creation with the pope of his day, that Empire had symbolized a number of principles we could do well remembering today: Principally, the Empire (and the other Christian monarchies that once acknowledged its authority) represented the lay counterpart to the papacy, a tangible sign that the State’s authority came not from mere popular opinion, or the whims of tyrants, but an unchangeable order of Being, rooted in divine revelation and natural law.
The job of protecting the liberty of the Church and enforcing (yes, enforcing) that Law fell not to the clergy but to laymen. The clergy were not a political party or a pressure group — but a separate Estate that often as not served as a counterbalance to the authority of the monarchy. No monarch was absolute under this system, but held his rights in tension with the traditional privileges of nobles, clergy, the citizens of free towns, and serfs who were guaranteed the security of their land. Until the Reformation destroyed the Church’s power to resist the whims of kings — who suddenly had the option of pulling their nation out of communion with the pope — no king would have had the power or authority to rule with anything like the monarchical power of a U.S. president. Of course, no medieval monarch wielded 25-40 percent of his subjects’ wealth, or had the power to draft their children for foreign wars. It took the rise of democratic legal theory, as Hans Herman Hoppe has pointed out, to convince people that the State was really just an extension of themselves: a nice way to coax folks into allowing the State ever increasing dominance over their lives.
A Christian monarchy, whatever its flaws, was at least constrained in its abuses of power by certain fundamental principles of natural and canon law; when these were violated, as often they were, the abuse was clear to all, and the monarchy often suffered. In extreme cases, kings could be deposed. Today, by contrast, priests in Germany receive their salaries from the State, collected in taxes from citizens who check the “Catholic” box. So much for the independence of the clergy.
The House of Austria ruled the last regime in Europe that bound itself by such traditional strictures, which took for granted that its family and social policies must pass muster in the Vatican. By contrast, in the racially segregated America of 1914, eugenicists led by Margaret Sanger were already gearing up to impose mandatory sterilization in a dozen U.S. states (as they would succeed in doing by 1930), while Prohibitionist clergymen and Klansmen (they worked together on this) were getting ready to close all the bars. As historian Richard Gamble has written, in 1914 the United States was the most “progressive” and secular government in the world — and by 1918, it was one of the most conservative. We didn’t shift; the spectrum did.
Dismantled by angry nationalists who set up tiny and often intolerant regimes that couldn’t defend themselves, nearly every inch of Franz-Josef’s realm would fall first into the hands of Adolf Hitler, then those of Josef Stalin. Today, these realms are largely (not wholly) secularized, exhausted perhaps by the enervating and brutal history they have suffered, interested largely in the calm and meaningless comfort offered by modern capitalism, rendered safer and even duller by the buffer of socialist insurance. The peoples who once thrilled to the agonies and ecstasies carved into the stone churches here in Vienna can now barely rouse the energy to reproduce themselves. Make war? Making love seems barely worth the tussle or the nappies. Over in America, we’re equally in love with peace and comfort — although we’ve a slightly higher (market-driven?) tolerance for risk, and hence a higher birthrate. For the moment.
Speaking of children brings me to the most haunting image I will take away from Austria. I spent a whole afternoon exploring the most beautiful Catholic church I have ever seen — including those in Rome — the Steinhof, built by Jugendstil architect Otto Wagner and designed by Kolomon Moser. An exquisite balance of modern, almost Art-Deco elements with the classical traditions of church architecture, it seems to me clear evidence that we could have built reverent modern places of worship, ones that don’t simply ape the past. And we still can. A little too modern for Kaiser Franz, the place was funded, the kindly tour guide told me in broken English, by the Viennese bourgeoisie. (Since my family only recently clawed its way into that social class, I felt a little surge of pride.) Apart from the stunning sanctuary, the most impressive element in the church is the series of stained-glass windows depicting the seven Spiritual and the seven Corporal Works of Mercy — each with a saint who embodied a given work. All this was especially moving given the function of the Steinhof, which served and serves as the chapel of Vienna’s mental hospital. (It wasn’t so easy getting a tour!) The church was made exquisite, the guide explained, intentionally to remind the patients that their society hadn’t abandoned them. Moser does more than Sig Freud can to reconcile God’s ways to man.
We see in the chapel the spirit of Franz Josef’s Austria, the pre-modern mythos that grants man a sacred place in a universe where he was created a little lower than the angels — and an emperor stands only in a different spot, with heavier burdens facing a harsher judgment than his subjects. No wonder Franz Josef slept on a narrow cot in an apartment that wouldn’t pass muster on New York’s Park Avenue, rose at 4 a.m. to work, and granted an audience to any subject who requested it. He knew that he faced a Judge who isn’t impressed by crowns.
As we left the church, I asked the guide about a plaque I’d seen but couldn’t quite ken, and her face grew suddenly solemn. “That is the next part of the tour.” She explained to me and the group the purpose of the Spiegelgrund Memorial. It stands in the part of the hospital once reserved for what we’d call “exceptional children,” those with mental or physical handicaps. While Austria was a Christian monarchy, such children were taught to busy themselves with crafts and educated as widely as their handicaps permitted. The soul of each, as Franz Josef would freely have admitted, was equal to the emperor’s. But in 1939, Austria didn’t have an emperor anymore. It dwelt under the democratically elected, hugely popular leader of a regime that justly called itself “socialist.” The ethos that prevailed was a weird mix of romanticism and cold utilitarian calculation, one which shouldn’t be too unfamiliar to us. It worried about the suffering of lebensunwertes Leben, or “life unworthy of life”–a phrase we might as well revive in our democratic country that aborts 90 percent of Down’s Syndrome children diagnosed in utero. So the Spiegelgrund was transformed from a rehabilitation center to one that specialized in experimentation. As the Holocaust memorial site Nizkor documents:
Children were killed because they stuttered, had a harelip, had eyes too far apart. They died by injection or were left outdoors to freeze or were simply starved.
Dr. Gross saved the children’s brains for “research” (not on stem cells, we must hope). All this, a few hundred feet from the windows depicting the Works of Mercy. Of course, they’d been replaced by the works of Modernity.
We’re much more civilized about this sort of thing nowadays, as the guests at Dr. George Tiller’s secular canonization can testify. In true American fashion, our genocide is libertarian and voluntarist, enacted for profit and covered by insurance.
I will think of the children of the Spiegelgrund tomorrow, as I spend the morning in the Kapuzinkirche, where the Habsburg emperors are buried — and the Fraternity of St. Peter say a daily Latin Mass. As I pray the canon my ancestors prayed and venerate the emperors they revered, I will beg the good Lord for some respite from all the Progress we’ve enjoyed.
Blessed Karl I, ora pro nobis.
[Dr. John Zmirak‘s column appears every week at InsideCatholic.com.]
The Hungarian Bishops’ Conference has a surprisingly handsome logo (above) depicting their patronal saint, King Stephen I, bestowing his crown to the Blessed Virgin and Our Saviour. Some might think the depiction of the Madonna & Child a touch too cartoonish, but I enjoy it.
His Most Eminent Highness, Fra’ Matthew Festing, the Prince & Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta made a four-day visit to Hungary last month, from 8-11 of February. The Grand Master was invited to Hungary by the President of the Republic, Mr. László Sólyom, who met with Fra’ Matthew at the Sándor Palace in Budapest. The President and the Grand Master discussed the various collaborative efforts between Hungary and the Order of Malta in health and social fields and discussed the possibility of further developing those projects.
The New York firm of Beyer Blinder Belle, responsible for the restoration of Grand Central Terminal, has been selected to develop “an adaptive reuse and restoration plan” for Exchange Place, a historic building on Budapest’s Freedom Square (Szabadság tér). Exchange Place was built in 1905 for the Budapest Stock and Commodities Exchange, and includes a number of ornamental details in the Hungarian style of the Secession architectural movement. After the Soviet conquest of Hungary, the building became the Lenin Institute before being given over to the state television broadcaster.