Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914
reviewed by David F. Beer

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914
by Béla Zombory-Moldován. Translated by Peter Zombory-Moldovan
New York Review Books, 2014

This short paperback is an excellent read on a number of levels. First, although labeled as a memoir, it's written in the style of All Quiet on the Western Front and other such memoir/novels and thus makes a captivating narrative. The translation from the original Hungarian (by the grandson of the author) is in a clear and coherent literary style that compares well with other WWI classics of this genre. Some passages reveal sensitivity to color and texture not often found in war recollections, but this isn't surprising since the author (who lived from 1885 to 1967) was an established painter, graphic artist, and illustrator who graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest prior to the Great War.

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We briefly meet several other Austro-Hungarian artists and writers in The Burning of the World, men who, like the author, were drafted into the army as soon as war broke out for them in July 1914. Although we may not be familiar with their names, or with the names of some places and events important to the story and to the opening moves of an infantry regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army, brief notes on each chapter identify and explain all such names. Furthermore, a map of the Balkans and particularly of Hungary and Galicia at the back of the book keeps us informed of where we are. The notes and map are indispensable, as is the informative 14-page introduction to the book by translator Peter Zombory-Moldovan, who lives in London.

A photograph at the front of the book shows Béla Zombory-Moldován as a rather dapper young man in the company of over a dozen friends enjoying a vacation at a resort in Novi Vinodolski on the Adriatic coast. (Warning: you may need a magnifying glass to identify some place names on the map.) Everyone is shocked when the news of war reaches them.

Self-Portrait in Uniform
From there we follow Béla as he returns to Budapest, takes leave of his parents, is mobilized and commissioned as a junior officer, and then travels by train and afoot across Hungary to his first and last battle at Rava Ruska. He takes part in horrific fighting as some 300,000 troops attack the Russians on 6 September 1914 — but find themselves retreating by 11 September. Some 400,000 Austro-Hungarian casualties result from these actions, with 100,000 more taken prisoner by the Russians (who lose 250,000 men).

The chapter on Rava Ruska, titled "Into the Fire," takes us only halfway through Béla's story. We then follow him as he is wounded, agonizingly evacuated "by cart and train, and eventually hospitalized with the crazies" in a military hospital while his wounds heal. Much later he's able to return to quiet resort villages and attempt to paint once more, but not before he contends with unbearable civilian attitudes, a brittle relationship with his father, and dismay bordering on depression. As Peter Zombory-Moldovan aptly states in his introduction, ". . . it is the account of what happens after his return from the front that is, from a psychological point of view, the most revealing and interesting part of the work (xv)."

War in the Balkans inevitably involved numerous peoples with different backgrounds, aims, and languages. The polyglot nature of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created problems of communication that can only be imagined in a more homogenous nation, and these problems reveal themselves in the book. Soldiers who cannot understand their officers are sent into battle ill trained and poorly equipped, knowing that if they are injured they can  expect only the most primitive of help.

1952 Landscape by the Artist

Béla himself survived his wounds and the war, and went on to become the principal of the Budapest School of Applied Arts. He also became a noted landscape artist. His handwritten memoir came to light much later and, as mentioned above, was edited and translated by his grandson. It has so far only appeared in English. That the New York Review of Books chose to publish it in their Classics series is a further indication of its significance. For me it was an enjoyable, moving, and educational read that increased my understanding of some early events in WWI that I had little knowledge of before.

David F. Beer


  1. " a map of the Balkans and particularly of Hungary and Galicia at the back of the book keeps us informed of where we are" - excellent!
    That alone bumps this up my to-read stack.

  2. I've read it twice now. It's that good. The first time was revealing and the second time was like taking another bottle of fine wine to task. It is another strata of the war that needs more attention. Cheers

  3. Does anyone know if Ferenc Bekassy is mentioned in the book? (Cambridge student who enlisted with the Hussars and was killed 22 June 1915)