Hungary Magazine

Sándor Márai and the fight against totalitarianism and nihilism


Budapest, Hungary – Memoir of Hungary 1944-1948, written by acclaimed writer Sándor Márai, provides a deep insight into the everyday realities of Hungary in the mid-1940s, and offers the reader a profound analytical, philosophical and normative understanding of the ideas, regimes and ways of life, not only of Hungary but also of the rest of Europe at that momentous time in European history.

The complete edition of the published versions of 1949 and 1972 moreover give us further comparative insight into how the author viewed this era, with the latter edition developing Márai’s philosophical ideas and mindset to a much greater extent than previous editions. To truly grasp this book, however, one has to understand the context in which the author grew up, matured and, sadly, committed suicide.

Europe in an intellectual void

Sándor Márai was born in 1900, in Austria-Hungary into a wealthy, high-middle-class, city dweller family. He grew up with a legacy of strong societal, intellectual and family values, which are reflected in his writing about “old” and “new” Europe. Before writing Memoir of Hungary, he spent a considerable part of his life in different parts of Europe, including Frankfurt, Berlin, Paris and Budapest. This aspect is essential to his philosophical writing, as the experience and first-hand knowledge of various pre-WWII cultures and intellectual circles allows him to write extensively on the Western Europe he knew; and about the Europe that came to being in the aftermath of World War II, including the imposition of Soviet-style regimes in Hungary and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.

As Márai himself acknowledges, this isn’t only a memoir of Hungary, but also of Europe as a whole and its intellectual spirit and legacy, and of the gradual advent of nihilistic and secluded values.

As is customary with Márai, the book is written in a highly realistic style, describing the everyday mundane life precisely how it happened with the thoughts and feelings expressed bearing a strongly relatable tone even for the contemporary reader. This is one of the reasons that makes Márai’s literary work so enjoyable and enthralling to read. The author also engages with profound philosophical debates addressing the intellectual void that took hold of post-WWII Europe, the building blocks of ideological thought and persecution and the ideological lures and appeals of both Nazi and Soviet ideologies.

The first part of the book describes life during the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, when the author, living in Budapest, had to flee to the countryside. Weeks later, the arrival of the first Soviet soldiers on their Western advance forced Márai, his family and others living in the village to endure months of close contact with the Red Army.

The most significant insight this gives us is the sudden civilizational “clash of East and West” and the exacerbation of their insolvable differences. It is not simply the collision of cultures encapsulated in their historical and intellectual development, but also the clash of political systems, most notably the totalitarian ideologies of the past century.

Totalitarianism and nihilism

Márai is nevertheless able to capture with great precision the metaphysical and philosophical underlying foundations of each conflicting cultures, as well as the intimate character of the people he meets. From military and party officials who ruthlessly calculated every move for the good of the state to the common soldier whose main concern is to loot: he sees the outcast, the brute, the child and the family men, all of whom seem to showcase the sheer diversity of European cultures at a crossroads in the continent’s historical development.

Diversity doesn’t exclude unity. A constant and unifying pillar of the book is found in the mystic and omnipotent figure of the writer, the one who speaks his mind and provides answers to those who ask. A soldier summarises this crucial thought when he claims the writer is the only one who truly says what people think but are unable to express.

On one hand, it shows the lack of freedom which characterised totalitarian regimes of the era and, on the other, refers to the intellectual void described by the author when he argues that post-war European intellectuals kept refusing ideas and saying “no” to everything instead of building new moral foundations. These two aspects – totalitarian dogma and intellectual nihilism – constitute a common thread and a unique assessment of 20th century Europe throughout Márai’s book.

Despite his reluctance, the author eventually decided to leave Hungary, his political and intellectual homeland. Márai left the country in 1948, living the rest of his life in San Diego in the United States, where he wrote and lived with his wife Lola. In 1989, shortly before the fall of the Iron curtain which would have allowed him to go back to Hungary, Márai committed suicide.

By Viktor Strausz

Of Hungarian and Karpatendeutsche descent, Viktor grew up in the multicultural city of Košice, in eastern Slovakia. After receiving a scholarship to pursue his academic interests in politics, philosophy and geography at the New Hall School in England, he graduated from the University of Warwick and aims for a career in diplomacy and civil service.