Noel Field’s Hungarian twilight

Noel and Herta Field in Hungary

When Noel Field, State Department official turned Soviet spy, settled down in Budapest in 1955 to spend his twilight years under the Communist totalitarianism he adored, he was given a job as translator and editor at New Hungarian Quarterly, an English-language publication that was distributed abroad to show off new Hungarian writing. He was surprised to discover that his colleagues at the magazine did not share his zealous devotion to Communism. On the contrary, as one of them would later tell biographer Kati Marton, Field was “the only pure Communist” in the office. Sophisticated intellectuals who knew the system for what it was, Field’s coworkers considered his (or anyone’s) devout Communism “a sign of intellectual backwardness.” For his part, whenever he overheard one of them saying things that weren’t entirely in line with Communist ideology, he rushed to inform on them, like any good Bolshevik, and they lost their jobs.

The Hungarian uprising, 1956: after a statue of Stalin is pulled down, the head lies in the street

In mid 1956, aware that the Hungarian people were growing restive under the Soviet yoke, Field wrote an article in the Hungarian Communist Party newpaper insisting that Communism was still “fundamentally sound” and calling dissenters “enemies of progress.” Soon after came the Hungarian uprising – and a few short weeks of freedom, which came to an end when Soviet tanks rolled in and brutally put down the rebellion. The next year, when a friend in Warsaw complained about the brutality of the Soviet incursion, Field replied sharply: “I don’t want to hear this!”

János Kádár

In his view, the Soviet troops who marched into Hungary were “the real freedom fighters” and the Kremlin’s new puppet leader, János Kádár, had “saved Hungary from ‘White Terror.’” In 1960, four years after Khrushchev himself ardently denounced Stalin’s crimes, Field published an article in Mainstream, an American Communist Party periodical, calling those crimes “essential on the road to a Communism.” Of the men who had interrogated and tortured him years earlier, he wrote: “I approve their detestation.” When everyone around him had moved on from Stalin and embraced a somewhat softer totalitarianism, Field remained an uncompromising Stalinist.

Every time Field issued yet another pro-Communist public statement, such as his article in Mainstream, his family in the West were subjected to a new round of media attention – and public suspicion that they shared his sympathies. When Field’s brother, Hermann, wrote a letter pleading with Noel to try to keep a lower profile, Noel snapped back: “As you know, I have my convictions, and whenever these require me to speak out, I shall do so, however great the pain of causing unpleasantness to relatives I continue to hold dear.” This to someone who had been imprisoned and tortured for his sake.

1968: the Soviets crush the Prague spring

The years went by. In 1968 the Kremlin again sent in tanks to crush an Eastern European revolt – this time in Czechoslovakia. Field was silent about it, but he did stop paying his Party dues. Is it possible that after so many decades of unshakable belief in the savage god of Communism, he finally lost his faith? There is no way of knowing for sure.

On this site, over the last year and a half, we’ve discussed scores of people who, out of either misguided devotion or pure self-interest, have put themselves at the service of tyrants. When it comes to unswerving ideological conviction, few if any could measure up to Noel Field. Kari Marton, Field’s biographer, sums it all up as follows: “His is the story of the sometimes terrible consequence of blind faith.”

Making Hobsbawm a hero

Yesterday we started exploring the legacy of the late British historian E. J. Hobsbawm, a hero of the British and American cultural elite – and a lifelong Stalinist.

E. J. Hobsbawm

As we’ve already begun to see, most of the eulogies in “respectable” media touched on Hobsbawm’s Communism, but offered little in the way of judgment of this detail. New York Times writer William Grimes, for instance, admitted that Hobsbawm, unlike many others, “stuck with the Communist Party after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Czech reform movement in 1968.” But Grimes then put a benign spin on this fact, quoting Hobsbamw’s 2003 statement, in an interview with the Times, that Communism “was a great cause, the emancipation of humanity. Maybe we got into it the wrong way, maybe we backed the wrong horse, but you have to be in that race, or else human life isn’t worth living.”

Not until the very end of Grimes’s very long necrology did he – briefly – address Hobsbawm’s refusal “to recant or, many critics complained, to face up to the human misery it had created.” (Note, indeed, how Grimes makes the objective fact of the mass human suffering caused by Communism to an opinion held by “many critics” that the ideology had caused “misery.”) Grimes mentioned a notorious 1994 television interview on the BBC (see clip below) in which Hobsbawm, in Grimes’s words, “said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result.” (Note, again, that Grimes turns the murder of millions by Stalin into deaths occurring under Stalin.)

Even here, Grimes cast Hobsbawm not as an unrepentant admirer of totalitarian genocide but as a victim of history. It was Tony Judt, another historian, who provided Grimes with the perfect quote with which to conclude the obit: “The greatest price he will pay is to be remembered not as Eric J. Hobsbawm the historian but as Eric J. Hobsbawm the unrepentant Communist historian,” Judt said. “It’s unfair and it’s a pity, but that is the cross he will bear.” Yes, that’s right: Hobsbawm supported the murder of millions, but in the end he was the victim.

Professor Sir Roderick Floud

In a lengthy testimonial for the British daily The Independent, Professor Sir (yes, “Professor Sir”) Roderick Floud called Hobsbawm “one of the greatest British historians of the 20th century.” Floud, too, took the “yes, but” approach to Hobsbawm’s Communism: yes, he was a lifelong Marxist, longtime Communist Party member, and inveterate apologist for Stalin, “but his influence as an historian and political thinker far transcended those allegiances.” After several detailed paragraphs about Hobsbawm’s career, Floud returned to the subject, writing as follows:

It would be overly cynical to suggest that Hobsbawm’s success as an historian stimulated jealousy. But the esteem in which he was held evoked hostility from those who could not forgive his Communism. An intellectual adherence to Marxism can, some argue, be explained in terms of the times in which he grew up; but to continue to defend the Communist Party long after the evidence of atrocities became known, is to some inexcusable.

Check out Floud’s wording there. First, see his reference to “those who could not forgive his Communism.” One might have been prepared to forgive Hobsbawm’s Communism if he had ever repented of it; but he never did. And, again, as with Higham’s reference to “Marxist ideology,” imagine The Independent running an article containing the phrase “those who could not forgive his Nazism.” Note also Floud’s words “to some.”

Josef Stalin

But Floud isn’t done trying to relativize and contextualize Hobsbawm’s Communism: “Hobsbawm’s adherence to the Communist cause stems from the circumstances in which, as a Jew, he was recruited in Berlin in 1932….Living in different times, the extremity of that passion sometimes seems hard to understand.” Yet millions of European Jews chose not to respond to Nazi totalitarianism by embracing Soviet totalitarianism.

Floud even found a way to make Hobsbawm’s tenacious Stalinism look potentially praiseworthy: is it possible, he asked, “that some part of his reluctance to disavow Communism even when it was failing stemmed from a wish not to betray the memory of former comrades”? Again, would anyone try to defend a stalwart Nazi in this fashion?

More tomorrow.