A grandfather's warning to his grandchildren

by Thomas B. Horvath - 4 min. read - (reviewed 2020-08-15: 0112 PDT)

Approaching storm

Photo by Raychel Sanner on Unsplash

EDITORIAL COMMENT (Mark Dworkin): This is a sensitive letter that Dr. Horvath, an exile from Hungary, and an immigrant from Australia, has written to his grandchildren for posterity. He is a man who has been through World War Two, almost died of tuberculosis, and had to leave Hungary to flee from the Russians during the Hungarian Revolution. This is his warning. His experience and wisdom need to be read.

To my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren (to come) please take my cautionary tale seriously.

We are lucky it was not Ebola that came knocking - or, rather, that it came when we had a sane, if imperfect, president in charge. But lest we think getting rid of Trump is enough, I advise you that our problems have been long in making.

We have not improved the economic and educational lot of our lower working and under classes, of any color, for generations. We have only provided a safety valve that would admit the best and brightest into the middle class.

We have demolished respect for expertise and substituted gut reactions. The extremes of both Left and Right are guilty of that. We have abandoned the building of organic communities and formed instead political or identity pressure groups. In arguing for an ahistorical American exceptionalism we reinvented the worst of old European chauvinism, trashed our old alliances based on values, and ignored the lessons of European history.

We also ended up disrespecting and ignoring our military veterans with whom we used to stand watch on the Rhine and who we sent to every corner of the world to solve with hard power the problems that really needed a soft power approach. Even the Late Roman Empire was wiser about the use and care of its Legions than we have been with our military.

These following diagnoses should be recommended reading for anyone interested In social justice - or for that matter, in survival.

Several thoughtful writers in the late 1890 and early 1900 recommended to Austro-Hungarian society a serious introspection, for reasons similar to those for which I recommend this to you. Our ancestors failed in that task, and as a result there is no longer such a society, but only about a dozen successor statelets, each fighting internally and with every one of its neighbors. The same is true for the former Ottoman Empire. Each is worse off than its ancestors were 110 years ago.

Around 1900, America did listen to a call for introspection issued by the muckraking journalists and by conservative progressives like Teddy Roosevelt. The younger Roosevelts developed and implemented these ideas in decades following, so that we avoided fascism, communism and economic decline.

But the forces of oligarchy with excess money (“malefactors of Great Wealth”, according to Teddy Roosevelt) and the gullible people with prejudices and stupidity fought back and we are once again living in desperate times that the Roosevelts would recognize, as would my grandparents. If we don’t do the “introspection and radical action” Ed Yong has called for in the Atlantic,1 our society, my dear young people, will disappear as surely as our great-grandfathers’ society did.

As I write about them in my Memoirs, they could not imagine the dissolution of a large, prosperous, resource-blessed, multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious society. They did recognize inequities but thought the KUK Society (a fascist society in Hungary) would somehow grow out of them. They did not anticipate the unexpected any more than we expected the COVID-19 or expect the other plagues likely to follow.

They also failed to see the bitterness, the deep and stubborn stupidity of social divisions, the strength of the status quo ruling classes, and the immaturity and fanaticism of the rising opposition to them that emerged then and can be seen now. In addition to this, there is the irresponsibility of the majority who won’t vote, who won’t discuss serious issues, who prioritize bars over schools, and who are possessed by unfounded private wishful thinking in opposition to the hard facts of science and history.

The disturbances of 1904 were the last warning for pre-war Central Europe. But the dominant powers and the people just doubled down and the guns of August (1914 )2 became the predictable bells of doom. By 1919 it was all over, forever.

If this ignoring of sensible warnings is repeated it will affect every one of us. We must use all means to act to prevent it such a disaster. Not one of us is too young or too old to engage in this action. Moreoever, as a young person, you must also prepare yourselves and your children for practical second or third professions and job skills. What appears as solid and predictable today won’t be there the day after tomorrow.

My uncle Leslie wanted to be a painter, but his father insisted on architecture. So instead of shoveling snow in Canada he designed bomb shelters and thus kept and educated his family. My mom had no useful education except finishing school, so she became a super in Vienna until she reinvented herself, left rule- and rank-bound Austria, and became first a gift shop owner in flexible Switzerland then, based on its financial success, an accountant for Hoffman LaRoche. And when the Australians denied a medical license to my own father, he invented himself as a bacteriologist and later a food technologist.

I urge you to recognize that the pandemic has revealed major and persistent problems in American society that the election in November won’t solve. We must first simply rid ourselves of our worst irritant, then launch a strenuous introspection.

Get prepared.

  1. Wong, E. (2020-08-04). How the Pandemic Defeated America. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved 2020-08-08 from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/coronavirus-american-failure/614191/ ^

  2. Reference is to Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning history (1962) of the first month of WWI, The Guns of August (New York: Macmillan). ^


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