Noel Field’s Hungarian twilight

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.”

The case of Picasso

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Pablo Picasso

After World War II, the myth spread that Pablo Picasso, while living in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, had stood up valiantly to the Germans and served as a rallying point for the Resistance. In truth, Picasso had had nothing whatsoever to do with the Resistance. On the contrary, he’d frequently welcomed German officers to his studio on the rue des Grand-Augustins, where he hosted them with warmth and hospitality.

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When Stalin died in 1953, the memorial issue of the Communist paper Les lettres françaises featured a front-page portrait of the dictator by Picasso

But if Picasso was, in a relatively small way, a useful stooge for Adolf Hitler, he went on to become a truly big-time stooge for the other great dictator of the day – Josef Stalin. Soon after the 1944 liberation of Paris, Picasso joined the French Communist Party. He explained this move in “Why I Became a Communist,” a 1945 essay for The New Masses. “My joining the Communist Party,” he wrote, “is a logical step in my life, my work and gives them their meaning.” While he had sought to serve man through his art, the Occupation had taught him that he “had to fight now only with painting but with my whole being.” He had joined the Party because it “strives more than any other to know and to build the world, to make men clearer thinkers, more free and more happy.”

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James Lord

None of this bilge satisfied his friend James Lord, the American writer, who in 1947 asked Picasso to explain why he’d joined the Party. Lord recorded Picasso’s curious reply in his 1994 memoir Picasso and Dora: “Everybody has to belong to something, he said, to have some tie, to accept a loyalty. One party being as good as another, he had joined the party of his friends, who were Communists.” Lord was troubled by this reply: “I had heard of Siberian concentration camps and ubiquitous secret police and the reign of terror, had read Darkness at Noon. And if I knew anything, Picasso must have known more, must have known especially of the murderous treacheries perpetrated in the name of the Party during the Civil War in his homeland. Could the painter of Guernica” – Lord’s reference, of course, is to Picasso’s 1937 antiwar painting inspired by the Spanish Civil War – “have failed to learn of all that?”

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Czeslaw Milosz

In the years that followed, Picasso became both the symbol of and primary source of funding for the French Communist Party. Lord wryly describes the painter’s “Communist Party hangers-on who often arrived just at lunchtime with fanatic appetites, ready to rant all afternoon against American perfidy and bourgeois evil, then ask Picasso for a hefty contribution before departing.” During these years, as Alex Danchev has written“the conscience-wrenching dramas of the cold war seemed to pass him by. When Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and the Prague spring in 1968, he had nothing to say.” In a 1956 open letter, indeed, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz upbraided Picasso for his silence on the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

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Guernica (1937), Picasso’s famous antiwar mural

James Lord, too, addressed an open letter to Picasso that year. Noting that the Spanish artist had often attested to his belief in the “spirit of freedom” and to his “disgust for tyrants and assassins,” Lord asked him how he could possibly continue to identify freedom with the Soviet Union. “Today,” wrote Lord, “the hands of your comrades, those you have so often clasped, are dripping with blood; they have written once and for all in letters of iron and fire what Communism is….Can the painter of Guernica remain indifferent to the martyrdom of Hungary?” Lord urged Picasso to heed “the obligation which weighs upon artists, trustees of civilization” and to “repudiate the errors of your political sympathies.”

Spanish-artist-Pablo-Pica-006Picasso’s reply? First, he had a mutual friend phone Lord and give him hell: “How dare you write that way to Picasso?” Second, Picasso and several other Communists issued a statement in which they reaffirmed their unqualified devotion to the Party.

To sum up: he may have been the greatest artist of the twentieth century. But he was also, at best, a moral fool who befriended the functionaries of one monstrous dictatorship, and then – after only a few weeks of post-Liberation freedom – became a proud vassal and poster boy for another. Artistic genius does not guarantee either political wisdom or moral courage.