There’s a war brewing in Europe.
For years, centuries, millennia these words have been repeated; farmers and peasants and priests and citizens, mercenaries and nobles – Europe has been at war forever. The 20th century saw maybe the worst of it – although only by degrees. The First World War, the 2nd – the cold war, gulags and concentration camps and mass starvation, a war against not only the body but also the mind. The shattering of Yugoslavia – pieces flying every which way. The Armenians – nobody ever talks about them, do they? Not politically correct, I suppose, to mention that genocide.
We in America are obsessed with World War II. It’s probably the grotesqueness of Hitler, the darkness of Nazism, the flagrant evil that didn’t bother to hide. Slaughter, cold and heartless and mechanized. But the reality is that World War I was more existential for Europe. While WWII was about despotism and tyranny, the First World War was the remaking of an old order. The redrawing of boundaries, the fall of dynasties, the final destruction of the “Sick Man of Europe”. Setting the table for all the geopolitical messes for a hundred years – messes we are still dealing with, like Turkey and Palestine and Syria and Jordan. The House of Saud.
But these epic tales of nations are carved all by individual men. We like to think of those men as Churchill or Stalin or Roosevelt – of “Lawrence of Arabia”. But those are just the names we remember. Most are forgotten; “uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes” as Joseph Conrad writes.
“The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914” is about that. It’s the story of Bela Zombory, a poor Hungarian painter and his first year of war. Drafted into the army, he’s forced to the front to fight the Russians – always the Russians. He is injured, and is returned to Budapest to recover. It’s his story – a short story, simple and uncomplicated. But not plain – full of the emotions of a man who does not want to fight, nor does he want to die. It is not a treatise against great powers – it is not a diatribe against war – it is not a self-serving heroic autobiography. It’s just a story of a boy, an artist, and his first year of war.
If you are intrigued by Europe and the wars. If you are a student of war. And if you are a reader – you’ll enjoy “The Burning of the World.”