In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed and a world power that had existed since 1867 ceased to exist. However, the fall had begun much earlier, and indeed the most potent wedge that would split the nation was the Great War. In his little-known memoir, The Burning of the World, only-first published in 2014, Bela Zombory-Moldovan describes his time on the Russian front in the early confused stages of the war. Though he has been dead since 1967, Bela’s words read with a strange, daydream-like quality of confused violence and the subsequent social changes against the established norm.
Bela himself was a well-to-do young artist at the beginning of the war. While on holiday at ancient Croatian village of Bribirk, he finds out about the war from the bathing attendant who suddenly leaves his post and informs an unaware Bela of the news in broken Hungarian. However, the laconic nature of his parlance due to the language barrier adds to the feeling of quiet unease. “Leaving? I must go to the army. There is going to be war… Please. The notice is there on the wall of the bathing station”
This strange half life in the twilight years of the old empire is further developed by Bela’s experience of confused combat against the Russians. In Bella’s first and only combat, his unit is destroyed, and he is wounded, limping back to his own lines with no surviving chain of command to direct him. While he recovers back in civilian life, he suffers a sort of emotional block, as he cannot go back to the normalcy of his dying way of life. He writes, “I bought a newspaper. I had not read one for weeks. Bellicose guff about final victory. The big German offensive towards Paris had ‘stopped’ at the Marne. No decisive developments anywhere. Slow dusk. Budapest.”
The Burning of the World is a title that would work for a book today as well as it did back during the turmoil at the beginning of the 20th century. The lack of decisive action in todays politics and current events maddening, yet there is some solace to be had in the narratives of others who came before. People like Bela Zombory-Moldovan are proof that turmoil and upheaval are the natural progression of history, and though it may at times feel surreal to be caught up in the middle of it, eventually there will be decisive action. It is only a matter of time.