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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Socialism and the nationality question

By the Danube

Attila József
Traduction de Peter Zollman

Texte intégral

1Title: A Dunάnάl (By the Danube)

2Originally Published: in Ferenc Fejtő, ed., Mai magyarok régi magyarokrόl, Budapest, Cserépfalvi, 1936

3Language: Hungarian
The text used is from the critical edition: Attila József, Összes versei (Budapest: Szepirodalmi, 1962), pp. 409–411.

About the author

4Attila József [1905, Budapest – 1937, Balatonszárszό]: one of the most important Hungarian poets of the twentieth century. His father was a soap-maker, most probably of Romanian origins, who left the family in 1908. József’s mother, a laundry-woman, raised him and his two older sisters in poverty. After the death of his mother, his sister married a well-to-do lawyer and took the adolescent Attila into her custody. His poetry gained the attention of the reputed poet Gyula Juhász, who helped him publish poems in periodicals and wrote an introduction to his first published volume. He entered the University of Szeged to study Hungarian and French but he never finished his studies. In 1925, he went to Vienna and enrolled at the university there. He became acquainted with the left-wing emigrant artists Béla Balázs, Lajos Kassák, Lajos Hatvany and Andor Németh (who became his best friend). In 1926, with the help of Lajos Hatvany, the most important supporter of modernist literature in the first decades of the century, he went to Paris. He studied at Sorbonne, where he also joined the Union Anarchiste-Communiste. In 1927, he returned to Budapest. His poems were published in many modernist and leftist periodicals and dailies, including the major social-democratic paper Népszava (Voice of the people), the modernist Nyugat (West), the civic radical A Toll (The pen), and the Transylvanian leftist Korunk (Our epoch). After the failure of his plans to marry an upper-class girl, he was hospitalized with neurasthenia. Both in his poetry and political ideas, he sought to fuse Marxism, psychoanalysis and existentialism. His un-orthodox understanding of the communist doctrine brought him into conflict with the Hungarian Communist Party in 1935. In 1936, he became editor of the newly founded Szép Szό (Beautiful word). At this time, his psychological condition was deteriorating and he spent several months in hospital and in a sanatorium. He committed suicide by throwing himself under the wheels of a passing freight train. After his death, Attila Jozsef was not immediately made part of the national poetic canon, as he was rather marginal both politically and aesthetically. No longer a communist, he was not glorified by the radical left, but, at the same time, he definitely did not have anything to do with the official discourse. After 1945, he was canonized as a proletarian poet, erasing the memory of his conflict with the Communist Party. In the 1960s, the complexity of his existential poetry was gradually rediscovered and he became one of the common intellectual references for asserting creativity, intellectual autonomy and political liberty.

  • 1 The title contains a deliberate ambiguity. In Hungarian “tőke” means tree-trunk but also capital. (...)

5Main works: A szépség koldusa [The beggar of beauty] (1922); Nem én kiáltok [It is not I who shouts] (1925); Nincsen apám se anyám [I have neither father nor mother] (1929); Döntsda tőkétne siránkozz! [Fell the tree-trunk, don’t cry]1 (1931); Kulvárosi éj [Suburban night] (1932); Medvetánc [Bear dance] (1934); Nagyonfáj [It pains me much] (1936); összes versei és válogatott irásai [Collected poems and selected writings] (1938).


6By the early 1930s, the intellectual opposition to the neo-conservative regime that had emerged a decade earlier was, to a large extent, divided into two subcultures: the so-called ‘populists’ (népiek) and ‘urbanites’ (urbánu-sok). In a way, this division can be considered a local version of the intellectual cleavage typical in all Eastern European cultures, going back to the Russian debate of Slavophiles and Westernizers. However, in the Hungarian case, the two camps perhaps shared more common features than was the case in other contexts. The members of the two groups came from the very same generation, reaching maturity in the late-twenties, and, up to a point, there was a common generational agenda that connected people of different backgrounds. This generational identity was disrupted by the radicalization of politics, along with economic and political crises. The sharpening of the rhetoric, also due to the international success of extreme nationalism, catalyzed an open conflict between these intellectuals. They formed two camps, which, although having many things in common, launched increasingly violent attacks against each other, combining personal and aesthetic divergences with political references, couched in different definitions of the nation.

7The ‘populists’ connected their radical program of economically emancipating the peasantry with an ethnic rhetoric that identified the peasantry with authentic ‘Hungarianness.’ They accused the other side of neglecting the cause of the countryside and concentrating exclusively on the world-view of the urban intelligentsia, which they often described as ‘non-Hungarian,’ that is, predominantly consisting of assimilated Jews. In turn, the ‘urbanites’ blamed the ‘populists’ for making concessions to the ‘official ethno-radicalism’ of the circle around the right-wing radical politician Gyula Göm-bös. For the ‘urbanites,’ this meant that the ‘populists’ ultimately chose to sacrifice their democratic commitment on the altar of their ethnicism, which, in the context of conflicting intellectual subcultures, entailed antisemitism. Thus, in the early 1930s, the two branches of Hungarian reformism spent most of their energy fighting and symbolically excluding the other from the ‘progressive camp’ and from ‘Hungarianness’ respectively.

8Attila Jόzsef was on friendly terms with the leading figures of the ‘urbanites.’ At the escalation of the conflict, he made his preferences obvious and defended them from the accusation of not being ‘sufficiently Hungarian.’ On the other hand, he had a certain empathy for the ‘populists.’ In the late 1920s, he was member of a youth organization called the ‘Bartha Miklόs Society,’ which was one of those intellectual groupings that had a common generational reform agenda. For a very short time he was even tempted by the discourse of ethno-cultural radicalism. In addition, he was one of the initiators of the ‘village sociography’ movement, which turned out to be the crucial literary genre of the ‘populists’ in the 1930s. Attila Jόzsef was convinced that the conflict was damaging the chances of a progressive movement, and thus he continued to refer to the ‘populist’ intellectuals in positive terms, as in, for example, his other ‘national’ poem, Hazám (My country).

9The poem Dunánál was the first item in the volume of essays, Mai ma-gyarok régi magyarokrόl (Present-day Hungarians on ancient Hungarians), edited by the intellectual circle around the journal Szép Szό, which was one of the focal points of the ‘urbanite’ cultural camp. This circle consisted of such figures as Pál Ignotus (the son of the founder of Nyugat), the prominent liberal publicist Zoltán Gáspár and the young social democrat journalist Fer-enc Fejtő. This volume was an attempt to counter the claims that the ‘urbanites’ were ‘anti-national.’ It was also published with the intention of finding common grounds for the democratic opposition in light of the increasing totalitarian danger. The selection of themes and contributors was fairly heterogeneous and was not really successful in creating a full-fledge ‘urbanite’ historical narrative. A personal confession as much as a political statement, Attila Jόzsef’s poem captures the spirit of the times, searching for a new ideological synthesis, and is also perhaps the most beautiful formulation of this symbolic offer of redefining the nation.

10To create an integrative imagery, the poet turns the Danube into a geographical and historical symbol, allotting to it metaphysical attributes. Speculating about what it means to relate to one’s ancestors, he claimed that they indeed acted through us.’ Nevertheless, the forefathers of the present-day nation cannot be described as a homogenous Hungarian ethnic community, but a mixture of different ethnicities, social and political platforms. Present-day Hungarians (in the translation it is rendered as ‘new Hungarians’) are the outcome of historical confluences, containing different ethnic and historical itineraries. The author invites his readers to relate both to the conqueror Árpád and the conquered indigenous chief Zalán (whose army was crushed by Árpád), or to István Werbőczy, who codified the noble privileges after the peasant revolt of Győrgy Dόzsa in 1514, and to the defeated peasant leader himself. The contested past can thus be a basis of reconciliation. Coming to terms with these ‘common things’ is necessary for transcending the political and ethnic dividing lines.

11The attempt at bridging the differences between the intellectual camps seeking to challenge the conservative-authoritarian mainstream in the mid-thirties was not successful. While individual friendships occasionally linked intellectuals coming from different subcultures, the ‘populists’ and the ‘urbanites’ continued to pursue their own cultural and political programs while retaining a measure of suspicion towards each other. Attila Jόzsef’s ‘message’ in this sense did not have an immediate impact. In the long run, he was nevertheless an important reference for attempts to supersede this conflict dividing the intelligentsia. In a way, this was the case after 1945, when he was appropriated by communist cultural policies, which sought to create a ‘progressive’ synthesis, selectively appropriating some elements from both the ‘populist’ and the ‘westernizer’ canons. More importantly, in the 1960s his poetry and philosophical ideas had a huge impact on various intellectual circles in Hungarian culture which were seeking to create a synthesis of European modernist trends and local cultural traditions. Nevertheless, the debate between ‘populists’ and ‘urbanites’ resurfaced again in the 1960s and 1970s; and with the emergence of competing groups opposing the communist regime, it had a decisive influence in shaping the ideological outlook of the new political movements in the transition period.


By the Danube

I sat there on the quayside by the landing,
a melon rind was drifting on the flow.
I delved into my fate, just understanding:
the surface chatters, while it’s calm below.
As if my heart had been its very source,
troubled, wise was the Danube, mighty force.
Like muscles when you work and lift the axe,
or harvest, hammer, excavate a grave,
so did the water tighten, surge, relax
with every current, every breezy wave.
Like Mother dandled, told a tale, caressed,
laundered the dirt of all of Budapest.
A drizzle started, moistening the morning
but didn’t care much, so it stopped again.
And yet, like someone who under an awning
watches the rain—I gazed into the plain:
As twilight, that may infinitely last,
so grey was all that used to shine, the past.
The Danube flowed, and like a tiny child
plays on his musing, lively mother’s knee,
so cradled and embraced and gently smiled
each playful wave, waving hallo to me.
They shuddered on the flood of past events
like tombstones, tumbling graveyard monuments.


For a hundred thousand years I have been gazing
and suddenly I see what’s there to see.
A flash, and time is fully-grown, embracing
what generations scan, and show to me.
I see what they’ve not seen, for they defended,
embraced, dug, murdered, their living to ply,
and they see now, in cold matter descended,
what I can’t see when I’m to testify.
We all relate, like blessed to the damned,
mine is the past and theirs is the today
We write poems—my pencil in their hand,
I sense them and remember what to say.


  • 2 Cumanian; a Turkic ethnie in medieval Eastern Europe, which was gradually assimilated by the other (...)
  • 3 Szekler.

Mother was Kún,2 Father was Székely,3 partly,
and half, or maybe, pure Romanian.
From Mother’s lips the food was sweet and hearty,
from Father’s lips the truth was radiant.
They embrace again when I am stirring.
This fills my heart with deep melancholy -
we are all mortal. It’s me, re-occurring.
“Just wait, we’ll soon be gone! …” they say to me.
They call, we are now one: this oneness I know
has made me strong, for I remember well
that I am every parent in the boundless
succession to the primal lonely cell.
I am the First, who splits, proliferating
till I become my father and mother,
then father and mother split, procreating
the multiplying me—and none other!
I am the world - the ancient, endless story:
clan fighting clan for creed or crazy greed.
I march among the conquerors in glory,
I suffer with the conquered in defeat.
Arpad and Zalán, Werbőczi and Dόzsa -
Slavs, Mongols, Turks and other variants
in me, we shall redeem the long foreclosure
with gentle future—new Hungarians!
…I want to work. It’s hard for human nature
to make a true confession of the past.
The Danube, which is past, present and future
entwines the waves in tender friendly claps.
Out of the blood our fathers shed in battles
flows peace, through our remembrance and regard:
creating order in our common matters,
this is our destiny; and it will be hard.

13Translated by Peter Zollman in Ádám Makkai, ed., In Search of the ‘Miracle Stag.’ The Poetry of Hungary (Chicago: Atlantis—Centaur, 1996), pp. 668–669.


1 The title contains a deliberate ambiguity. In Hungarian “tőke” means tree-trunk but also capital. Therefore, it can also be translated also as “Fell the Capital!”.

2 Cumanian; a Turkic ethnie in medieval Eastern Europe, which was gradually assimilated by the other nations, but which retained a certain communal autonomy in central Hungary until the nineteenth century.

3 Szekler.


Peter Zollman (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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