...And the Road to Vienna

...And the Road to Vienna

Mini Teaser: In Blacklisted: A Journalist's Life in Central Europe, Paul Lendvai recounts his remarkable journey from the Nazi wartime death marches, to his days as a young communist apologist, and on to his later "crusade of information" against comm

by Author(s): Noel Malcolm

Paul Lendvai, Blacklisted: A Journalist's Life in Central Europe (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

Paul Lendvai is one of the Grand Old Men of European journalism. Having fled to Vienna in early 1957, just months after the Soviet suppression of the rising in his native Hungary, he quickly made a name for himself as a sharp-eyed commentator on East European affairs. For twenty-two years he worked for the Financial Times; then he became head of the Eastern Europe desk of Austrian television and radio (in 1982), and five years later director of Radio Austria International. By this stage he was almost an institution in himself, having become the sort of journalist who may spend as much time answering questions from political leaders (requests for advice, analysis, and so forth) as he does asking them questions of his own.

His range was impressive; few other commentators had either the energy or the linguistic skills to keep track of political developments in Hungary, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and all the Balkan states. And despite a heavy workload of daily journalism, he also found time to write several substantial works of synthesis. The book he is probably best known for is Eagles in Cobwebs (1969), a highly readable panoramic survey of communist rule in the Balkans. In some ways, naturally enough, this work has now been superseded, both by later books and by events; and on a few points Lendvai's judgment does seem in retrospect naively optimistic. (He hugely overestimated the significance of the "independent" attitude taken by Romania's Nikolai Ceausescu toward his Soviet godfathers; yet, to be fair, this was a common illusion at the time, shared even by hard-headed Romanian émigrés such as Ghita Ionescu.) But Lendvai's central theme in this book was the interplay between communism and nationalism, and the ways in which the latter could either subvert the former or be manipulated by it. By concentrating on this issue, he proved himself a shrewder judge of Balkan realities than all the academic social scientists of the day, whose treatises on party structures and economic "self-management" are now gathering dust on shelves.

Two of his other books remain indispensable. Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe (1971) was a comparative study of the relationship between Jews and communism in four countries. Focusing especially on the extraordinary campaigns of official anti-Semitism that were launched in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, it remains one of the best case studies of the fomenting and instrumentalizing of so-called ethnic hatreds from above. And The Bureaucracy of Truth (1980) has never been bettered as a wide-ranging, marvelously factual study of how communist regimes controlled and manipulated the flow of news and information.
Readers of both those books will have sensed from time to time, behind the cool, analytic prose, a quickening of personal feelings and a burden of personal experience. Twentieth-century anti-Semitism was of more than theoretical interest to Paul Lendvai, many of whose relatives were murdered at Auschwitz. And the techniques of communist news-management were something he had had to study assiduously in the first phase of his career, as a young journalist in the Budapest of the 1950s. Now, in his seventieth year, he has produced a brief but fascinating autobiography, in which these and other experiences are treated with a mixture of bemused detachment and still smoldering anger.

As is so often the case with autobiographies, the earliest parts are the best. He recalls step-by-step degradation of the Hungarian Jews from 1941 onwards, and the humiliation of his father, a decorated officer from the First World War, who was stripped of his rank and sent to do "labor service" wearing a yellow armband. (Some of the father's understandable nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire has rubbed off on the son: Lendvai not only sings the praises of late nineteenth-century Hungary's treatment of its Jews, but also calls the Empire a "multinational state built on political equality and minority rights"--a description that would find few takers in Zagreb or Bucharest.)

Lendvai slipped through the net of the Nazi roundup of Hungarian Jews in the spring and summer of 1944, though he was later arrested by Hungarian fascists and sent on one of the infamous "death marches", from which he managed to escape. His parents too survived, having learned some of the necessary techniques of evasion and self-effacement; similar techniques and attitudes would be needed a few years later to cope with life in a communist police state. But just as Lendvai's father, the decorated ex-officer, had found it difficult to believe that the state he had loyally served could intend him any harm, so the young Paul Lendvai would take a long time to lose his illusions about a beneficent "people's government."

For young Paul was, or became, a leftist himself--in some ways perhaps a more committed leftist than many of the communists that now came to power, for whom power itself, and the aggrandizement of their Soviet sponsor, were the only real considerations. Lendvai describes (with the help of recently released documents) the ruthless tactics with which the communists took control of the political system in 1946-48; and yet, while this was happening, he himself was actively campaigning within the "youth groups" of the traditional left-wing party, the Social Democrats (SD), for a more pro-communist policy. On one occasion, he recalls, he even demanded the resignation of a leading SD intellectual who was against close involvement with the communists. These pages of his autobiography must have been painful to write; they are suffused with shame and sorrow.

The "merger" of the SDs with the communists (i.e., the complete takeover of the former by the latter) was followed swiftly enough by the arrest of key SD politicians; the staged trials of these non-communists then provided the model for the first of the great communist show-trials, the indictment of Foreign Minister Laszlo Rajk in 1949. Lendvai, meanwhile, was learning the ropes of Soviet-style journalism in the central Hungarian News Agency. Much of what he was taught involved the manipulation or deception of the public; once, for example, he was seriously reprimanded for mentioning, in a triumphalistic article about a slump in the U.S. car industry, that two million fewer cars had been produced that year. "By mentioning the absolute figures", his boss told him, "you make it possible to get an idea of how many vehicles come off the assembly line. It would have sufficed to mention only the percentage."

And yet, although the young Lendvai registered such things in his mind and clearly understood the cynical way in which this news system operated, he continued to believe in the aims it served. Thus he took part enthusiastically in its campaigns against such ideological bogeys as "Titoist revisionism", or even (though he now blushes to admit this) "international Zionism." In both psychological and political terms, this section of the book is the most fascinating of all, offering as it does a specimen of a peculiar--but, in communist regimes, characteristic--condition. What is one to call it? Cognitive dissonance? The willing suspension of disbelief? Perhaps a combination of "the captive mind", in Milosz's phrase, and the split personality--with, in this case, a touch of that tragically misdirected "idealism" familiar to us from Koestler's Darkness at Noon.

Lendvai's own arrest and imprisonment, one foggy evening in January 1953, follows with grim predictability. Although he had supported the merger of the SDs with the communists, he was tainted both by the mere fact that he had come from a rival party, and by his association with a leading SD intellectual who had already "confessed" in a show-trial. Eventually released, after signing the necessary self-incrimination, Lendvai slowly rebuilt his career as a writer and journalist. And yet even now he had not lost all faith in the system: he campaigned doggedly for a reconsideration of his case, convinced that the authorities would treat him fairly in the end. At the time of the political crisis in 1956 he belonged, as he says, to those socialist intellectuals who thought Nagy would reform communism and restore its ideals, not to the workers in the streets who tore down the red stars and called for a return to pre-communist democracy.
So when Lendvai took his one-way trip to Vienna in February 1957, he was not a typical refugee from the Soviet crackdown. He had continued to work as a journalist, and had got out (to Warsaw and Prague, initially) on an official press visa. It was, he says, his discussions with Western journalists in Poland and Czechoslovakia that opened his eyes to the real nature of the intellectual freedom of the West. This crucial turning point in his mental life is treated rather summarily; one senses that the full range of psychological factors involved has not been opened to inspection.

Readers may also sense an implicit feeling of guilt: when so many others had lost their lives, or fled in fear of imprisonment or execution for their actions in 1956, here was a reasonably successful young man with no pressing reason to flee, and whose own earlier persecution by the regime had been, he continued to believe, some sort of mistake. Perhaps the energy with which Lendvai now threw himself into becoming a Western-style "objective" political journalist was the expression, partly, of a compensation syndrome. Having hitherto compromised the truth, in his thinking and his life, he was determined to make up for it by becoming a tireless researcher into the realities of communism. If that was the psychological debt that weighed on him, then it should be said that the forty years of work that followed have more than repaid it.

The later chapters of the book describe his subsequent career; but though the work he did was important, it makes for less interesting autobiography. He was a commentator and analyst rather than a reporter: this is not, therefore, one of those foreign correspondent's memoirs that are full of dramatic incidents in far-flung places. Even the "blacklisting" that he suffered from several communist regimes in the 1980s, although apparently thought dramatic enough to give the book its title, does not seem very remarkable in itself. What makes this account of it interesting is the fact that Lendvai is now able to quote the relevant files and telegrams from Communist Party archives, with their gloriously florid mixture of bureaucratese, misinformation and sheer invention.

Other details from recently released documents cast odd shafts of light into other corners of Lendvai's earlier life. A person of his age who lived in a communist state can now read about himself in a way (and, sometimes, to a degree of detail) that he would never have thought possible--almost as if it were God, not the secret police, whose dossiers were now available for consultation. The extraordinary changes that have taken place since 1989 impinge in another way too: from time to time Lendvai comments on the success of Hungarian communist hacks in transforming themselves into respected "post-communist" intellectuals. One would almost like Lendvai to have been more unforgiving here, dishing out the dirt more explicitly and removing the veils of anonymity from several of his subjects. But perhaps, in the end, he decided that that was God's role, not his. For his main aim in writing this book was not to accuse the consciences of others, but to examine his own; in doing so, he has written a very personal document that can still tell us some important things about the human history of this century.

Essay Types: Book Review