Comrade Baron is a highly personalized defense of aristocracy. These days, that’s the sort of thing that simply isn’t done and this singular book therefore runs the risk of being overlooked, perhaps even finding a place on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum that keeps progressives occupied. That would be a shame. Comrade Baron is thought-provoking and a pleasure to read.
A Dutch journalist, Jaap Scholten went to work in Budapest shortly after the countries of the Soviet bloc had recovered their freedom. There he was to meet and marry Ilona, a Countess who happened to have been born and brought up in exile but whose forebears came from Transylvania. On grounds of privacy, I assume, he withholds her family name and for no obvious reason also gives pseudonyms to several elderly Transylvanians whose life stories he tells.
A semi-autonomous province of Hungary since the Middle Ages, Transylvania and its unchanging way of life generally seemed to the outside world a byword for feudalism. Noble families possessed huge estates with thousands of acres of forestry; on the eve of the Second World War, it appears, thirty-four such grand families were still in Transylvania. Over the years, Scholten traveled there with or without Ilona, taking up invitations and interviewing all and sundry. The more often he went, the more he discovered to admire in the past, and the more bearing that past had upon the present.
The internal evidence of Comrade Baron suggests that Jaap Scholten has an open mind, with more interest in people than in politics, although in the background his uncle, Coen Stork by name, was Dutch ambassador in Bucharest towards the end of the Ceau?escu regime. Those unfamiliar with Hungarian history will have to take his word for it that Transylvanian personalities singled out in this book with names like Teleki, Mikes, Kalnoky, Bethlen, Ugron, and a few others besides took their responsibilities seriously. As often as not, they were public servants of whom any nation could be proud. The greatest landowner, Miklós Bánffy (1873–1950), was the Foreign Minister, the director of the Budapest opera, and the author of the trilogy of novels that is a lasting testimony to Transylvania. The Romanians, German settlers, Jews, and gypsies who used to comprise the huge majority of the local population were left to decide whether the benefit of living in a settled order outweighed the hard fact that they were not the equals of the nobles. Numerous well-chosen photographs in the book show some of these nobles in traditional Hungarian uniforms and costumes, the men all moustaches and jackets with braid and frogging, the ladies all furs, ballroom dresses, and pearl chokers. In Scholten’s opinion, the defining characteristic of aristocracy is elegance. He allows, however, that he might be a romantic.
The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, rounded up 2,972 families.
Post-war rebalancing of power between the victorious Allies handed Central and Eastern Europe over to the Communists. In a twist of bizarre logic, the punishment of one of Hitler’s wartime satellites involved the reward of another: Transylvania was transferred from Hungary to Romania. The settled order of centuries was swiftly obliterated by the Communist Party. In the night of March 3, 1949, the Romanian secret police, the Securitate, rounded up 2,972 families, 7,804 people in total, “most of them nobles of Hungarian origin,” as Scholten puts it. All were deported in trucks to some place in the country assigned as their Domiciliu Obligatoriu, DO for short, a combination of exile and house arrest. Scholten highlights the fate of some of the more prominent victims: Count Farkas Bethlen was sentenced on trumped-up charges to twenty-two years in prison and Baron István Schell to twenty-five years; Count Zsigmond Kun received a life sentence; István Orbán was accused of treason and shot in the back of the neck; Count István Bethlen, a former Prime Minister described here as “an outspoken opponent of the alliance with Nazi Germany,” was taken to Moscow and died in prison there. Károly Orbán might have been an ambassador or even Foreign Minister. He and his twelve-year-old daughter Maria were in their DO when he was informed that the huge silver firs in the park of his country house had been cut down. For the first time in her life, Maria saw her father cry. He too was executed in a Securitate prison. One among other state-sanctioned tortures condemned people to stand knee-deep in the water of rice paddies, cutting reeds in the Danube delta, or else conscripted as forced labor constructing the notorious Danube–Black Sea Canal. A very different set of photographs on the pages of Comrade Baron shows abandoned castles, ruins, and a cellar or bolt-hole that served as a DO.
“Communism is the absolution of criminality,” in the phrase of one of the aristocrats quoted here. The regime of Nicolae Ceau?escu lasted almost twenty-five years, during which time Communism became merely the satisfaction of the absurd pretensions of this self-styled “Genius of the Carpathians.” Neither an architect nor a huntsman, he had to have the biggest palace and shoot the biggest bears in the forest. A particularly striking chapter describes how he and the toadies around him were trying to pass themselves off as imitation aristocrats when they were merely thieves and murderers.
One authority estimates that by now two and a half thousand Hungarian aristocrats live in thirty countries abroad, five hundred in Hungary, and twenty-five in Transylvania. Quite soon, all that will be left of them will be some names of streets and dishes that their chefs created in bygone days. With their disappearance, to quote one of Scholten’s elegiac expressions, the world will have become shorter of breath. There are no replacements. Elegance today is a matter of getting enough money by hook or by crook to build a vast and hideous villa. After half a century of Communism, Eastern Europe has a settled order, but it is a moral vacuum that leads nowhere and to nothing.