Knight In Rusty Armor Essay

February 14, 1943

A Challenge to 'Knights in Rusty Armor'

ere is an arresting article on a vital question: "What kind of world are we shaping?" It is a challenge by a member of the Left to his fellows of the Left- and to the Right, too. It is published as a striking contribution to that debate and because of the author's extraordinary background.

Mr. Koestler, a native of Hungary, worked fifteen years for the Ullstein newspaper chain in Germany. Later he was imprisoned and sentenced to death in Spain during the civil war. Reprieved, he went to France and was imprisoned there early in the present war. Eventually he escaped to England. He is the author of "Spanish Testament," "Dialogue With Death," "Darkness at Noon" and "Scum of the Earth."


I have been asked by the editor of this paper to write an article, "based on personal experience, on what gives men faith to fight to the end for the democratic way." I quote the question because I feel that, in a negative form, it contains in itself part of the answer. Most of the men whom I have seen dying or going to their death on battlefields, in hospitals, prisons and concentration camps since Badajoz certainly did not part from life out of enthusiasm for an abstract "democratic way" and I wonder how many of the men who do the real fighting in this war can tell you even the difference between a British trade union and the German Workers Front; not to speak of more complicated constitutional questions.

Take one of the great epics of this war, the tiny Greek Army, of which nobody ever heard before, beating up Mussolini's crack regiments. It was almost a miracle- and yet the Greeks fought under the fascist dictatorship of the late Metaxas, a tyranny so stupid and narrow that it put Plato's Republic on the list of forbidden books. Again, take the latest miracle, the defense of Stalingrad. We look with humility, gratitude and admiration at the men and women of the Soviet State. Those who try to divide us from them are playing Hitler's game; but those who pretend that Uncle Joe's ways are democratic ways are either trying to be very clever or are just innocent fools.


I am not saying all this for the sake of the cheap pleasure of debunking. I only mean that this war turns out to be a more complicated affair than it looked at the beginning; and that we should try to focus our eyes on real people, not the glamour-soldiers and soldierettes of propaganda posters. Talking of real people, we may distinguish two main categories: those who have personally experienced the Nazi-Fascist ways, and those who have not.

The first category- that is, the people on the Continent- know exactly what they are up against; they know it as intimately as the sufferer knows his pains. But do they also know the remedy? Does the experience of pain provide you with the doctor's insight? The more you talk to people who have recently escaped from the dark Continent, the more you doubt it.

For the Czechs, Poles, Frenchmen, Belgians, Dutch, etc., this war is literally a fight for physical survival. They hate not the abstract term "fascism" but the concrete German who destroyed their homes and killed their friends. They fight not for the abstract term "democracy" but for the concrete aim of national liberation. If you talk to them of the United States of Europe they look askance at you. One of the main curses Hitler has brought on us is that, by trying to unify Europe in the wrong way, he has brought forth such a recrudescence of nationalistic, chauvinistic feeling, that the clock of European evolution has been put back for at least fifty years. Whether you like it or not, the wish-dream of the martyrized Continent is a super-Versailles, and "national sovereignty" is the great slogan of the hour.

As to those who have had no personal experience of fascism- the common people in Anglo-Saxon countries- the term democracy has very little real meaning. They are as unaware of the basic constitutional liberties they enjoy as they are unaware of the composition of the air they breathe.

And this, if you reflect upon it, is perhaps the proudest achievement of the liberal era. Indeed, the ideal for a well-functioning democratic state is like the ideal for a gentleman's well-cut suit- it is not noticed. For the common people of Britain, Gestapo and concentration camps have approximately the same degree of reality as the monster of Loch Ness. Atrocity propaganda is helpless against this healthy lack of imagination. I have tried my hand at it. Whenever I have lectured to the troops on fascist concentration camps I have had the distinct feeling that as long as I had a grip on the audience they believed me, but then as soon as I had gone they did not believe me any more than one believes in yesterday's nightmare and starts happily to sing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"

I repeat that this lack of morbid imagination is one of the good and healthy features of the Anglo-Saxon; but it implies that the great majority of the people in this country still does not have the faintest idea of what this bogy of fascism means. On the other hand, they have a very clear idea of what German aggression and the German Air Force mean; here their thoughts move along the well-established association tracks of 1914; and since the blitz on Coventry those who try to discriminate between "Germans" and "Nazis" are fighting a losing battle. Soon they are going to be buried with military honors in the columns of The New Statesman and Nation; and the nearer victory comes in sight, the clearer the character of the war reveals itself as what the Tories always said that it was- a war for national survival, a war in defense of certain conservative nineteenth-century ideals, and not what I and my friends of the Left said that it was- a revolutionary civil war in Europe on the Spanish pattern.

And this is not so because the Tories are cleverer than the Left, or because Mr. Churchill has more "massivity" than Mr. Attlee, but because the great majority of ordinary people of all classes still think more in terms of the nineteenth century than the twentieth, and of wars more in terms of the Charge of the Light Brigade than of the International Brigade. The last Gallup poll revealed that 91 percent of the British people approved of Mr. Churchill's policy after his famous "we are going to hold what we have" speech. Let us be frank; while we rejoice over the victory of our arms, let us recognize the defeat of our aims.


So far I have spoken about the non-political majority. Now what about us, the conscious minority who dreamed and worked for a unified, fraternal, Socialist Europe? It must be admitted that we are beginning to look rather silly, and personally I am getting sick of my own and my friends' wailings and moanings. Let us instead face the facts and see where we stand.

The great international movements have failed. The Second International failed in its mission when it failed to prevent the war in 1914; the Third International when it failed to prevent Hitler's ascension to power in 1933 and became a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office. Thus the defensive coalition of conservative and progressive forces which the Nazi menace brought into being stood from the very beginning under conservative leadership. It was the Appeasers, not the Crusaders, who led us into the war- because the Crusaders, even if they were a thousand times right, had been too often defeated to be trusted by the people, whereas the Appeasers, with all their past blunders, had the solid forces of conservatism behind them.

In consequence the war was waged from the very beginning not only strategically but ideologically on defensive lines. We were and are fighting "in defense" of conservative values that are expressed in nineteenth-century terms against a ruthlessly offensive "new order." And while recently the Allied coalition switched to the offensive in the military field, its ideology is still conservative and defensive, even more pronouncedly so than before. The American elections, the burlesque Darlaniad, the melancholy Crippsiad and other evens make it increasing clear that the scales are moving more and more to the conservative side, almost in direct proportion to the approach of victory; and that people do not seem to mind very deeply- they are much more interested in the Eighth Army's advance than in Cripp's retreat.

Thus, if nothing unexpected happens, the coming victory will be a conservative victory and lead to a conservative peace. It will provide no lasting solution of the minority problems in the European jigsaw puzzle. It will provide no cure for the inherent disease of the capitalistic system. It will not mark a decisive step in the ascent of the human race. But it will bring an enormous temporary relief to the people of the Continent, it will bring salvation to millions whose life seemed doomed, and a certain minimum of liberty, decency, security. Briefly, it will be a new, perhaps slightly improved, edition of the pre-Hitlerian old order, a nineteenth-century postscript to the first half of the twentieth, which history has written in such abominable style. And I hope, and believe, that this anachronistic patchwork, if it is achieved with good craftsmanship, may give Europe a breathing space of perhaps a couple of decades, with at least a chance of averting the next fatal plunge.

That means that we are beginning to realize that this war is not the final cataclysm, not the ultimate showdown between the forces of darkness and light, but perhaps only the beginning of a new series of convulsions, spread over a much larger period of history than we originally thought, until the new world is born. The task will be to use the coming breathing space as best we can. And, incidentally, to give praise every morning we wake without a Gestapo sentry under our window, for this nineteenth-century postscript, for our own physical survival. Who among those who lived through the French collapse two years ago believed it! I for one did not.


I am aware that this is a very modest credo for a member of what you call the "Left intelligentsia," and that my friends are going to throw stones and call me names. The more so as they too must feel, more or less consciously, that we have maneuvered ourselves into a political vacuum- a vanguard cut off from its source of supply.

We have thought of the Battle for Progress in the classical terms of Socialist trench warfare with neat, tidy front lines between the classes- and are caught in a perplexing fluid war of social movements with mobile units breaking loose from their social bodies: large sections of the working class joining the Fascist ranks, radical wings of the younger Tory generation operating on the Left of the trade unions, bureaucracies and managers establishing themselves in vital hedgehog positions. And there we stand in no-man's land, dazzled knights in rusty armor, with a well-thumbed handbook of Marx-Engels quotations as our sole guide- the truest and profoundest social guide of the last century, but, alas! of modest use on this topsy-turvy battleground of today.

There is, however, a more encouraging aspect of this picture. For the last fifteen years those knights in rusty armor with Liberty, Equality, Fraternity written on their shields, have always fought on the losing side. Shanghai, Addis Ababa, Madrid, Vienna, Prague- one long chain of wretched defeats, until it became a habit with us to live in a climate of constant defeat, a kind of permanent apocalypse. Defeat taken in large doses is a dangerous drug; it becomes an addiction.

Now for the first time it seems that we shall be on the winning side. And though this victory will be very different from what we dreamed, it might produce an enormous change- get us out of the habit of defeat. And once we get into the habit of winning, with our armor brought up-to-date, who knows where we shall stop?

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May 27, 1945
The Essays of Arthur Koestler

And Other Essays.
By Arthur Koestler.

hese essays by Arthur Koestler possess a particular value for Americans, since we have no equivalent for him in this country. A man of 40, of Hungarian birth and a journalist by profession, he has lived through all the phases of the long battle against fascism in a way that our fortunate detachment has spared us from doing. A correspondent in the Soviet Union in the Nineteen Thirties, he was for some years a member of the Communist Party, but broke with it at the time of the Moscow trials. A representative for a London paper in Spain during the civil war, he was imprisoned and narrowly escaped execution at the hands of Franco. At the outbreak of the present war he was in Paris, and suffered the ironic fate of many other anti-fascist "foreigners" by being sentenced to the concentration camp at Le Vernet. Released just in time to witness the fall of France, he managed to escape to the south and eventually to England. The best of his books so far, "Scum of the Earth," records that year's experience unforgettably. His chief novels, "Darkness at Noon" and "Arrival and Departure," convey respectively his disillusion with the Russian Revolution and his probing examination of the European state of mind in its defensive stand against fascism.

His collection of essays all date within the past four years, and reveal his deepening preoccupations. He surveys the role of the "intelligentsia" from the era of the French Revolution, and believes in its responsibility to preserve the "aspiration to free thinking." During the past decade of savage persecutions, when men of thought have had to wage a rear-guard battle and often to deploy on narrow and narrower margins, he has held to the duty of independence- "in a world where nobody is well: the duty not to accept." He functions at his best when he makes us see the Atlantic gulf that separates those who have known the European convulsion at first hand from those who have not. Requested by THE NEW YORK TIMES Magazine to write an article, "based on personal experience, on what gives men faith to fight to the end for the democratic way," he responded early in 1943 with "Knights in Rusty Armor." He told there the kind of truths that we do not now like to hear, such as that "the nearer victory comes in sight, the clearer the character of war reveals itself as what the Tories always said it was- a war for national survival, a war in defense of certain conservative nineteenth-century ideals, and not what I and my friends of the Left said that it was- a revolutionary civil war in Europe on the Spanish pattern."

In his tribute to Richard Hillary, a talented and beginning novelist who gave his life as a pilot in the RAF, Koestler probes farther the issue of "fighting faith." Hillary was intensely conscious of belonging to the new Lost Generation, "disillusioned and spoiled," whose brief lives spanned only between wars. Koestler makes a significant counterpoint between an Oxford don's letter of condolence to the pilot's father, recalling Dick's "indomitable spirit" as stroke of his college crew in 1939, and Hillary's own analysis of how he and his university contemporaries attacked "the middle-class society to which they owe their education and position," and yet failed to make any effectual contact with "the practical exponents of labor." He felt that they were balancing precariously between "a despised world they had come out of and a despising world they couldn't get into"- a feeling shared by many of their American middle-class counterparts. But as soon as war was declared, Hillary enlisted and was one of the group who saved his country in the Battle of Britain. Yet he was impelled to write his novel "The Last Enemy" because he got "so sick of the sop about 'The Knights of the Air'" that he had to say that it was "in spite of" that sop and "not because of it" that "we still felt this war worth fighting."

In "The Fraternity of Pessimists" Koestler formulates his own somber confession of faith, that "in this war we are fighting against a total lie in the name of a half-truth." He sees in our victory no lasting solution for the minority problems in Europe, and no cure "for the inherent disease of the capitalistic system." He casts a doubting glance at America's future handling of racialism, since he believes that fascism is the same whether in Warsaw, Calcutta, or Detroit. He is only made uneasy by the Hollywood version of the heroic sergeant on Battan who "seems always apt to confound Abraham Lincoln with President Harding." At a time when we would like to think this the last war, Koestler looks ominously ahead. He believes that "the only asset left on a bankrupt continent" is in the men of action and sensitivity in the resistance movements, those "pioneers in the fight to safeguard the dignity of man."

Koestler is not an original, nor a particularly powerful, thinker. Rather he is a man of acute feeling who has suffered long and intensely. He knows that suffering alone does not produce wisdom; and yet the great dividing line now is "between those who have suffered and those who have remained relatively untouched." Consequently, his chief service is that he enables us to penetrate beyond that line by observing what the experience of our time has done to a representative European intellectual. Only against his background can we understand his attitude toward the two symbols of his title. For now he feels compelled to formulate human behavior at its two extremes. At the infra-red extreme he sees the Commissar, who believes in Change from Without and that the End justifies the Means. At the ultra-violet extreme he sees the Yogi, who believes in Change from Within, that "the End is unpredictable and that the Means alone count." They have no common meeting ground. The one is concerned with the individual's relation to society, the other with his relation to the universe.

It must be observed that such symbols are very literary, and that Koestler's thinking is often imaginatively rich at the expense of strict logical coherence. But the main interest is to perceive how he arrived at these symbols, and why a man with his strong political concerns now feels that he is traveling consciously, if unwillingly, toward the ultra-violet end.

The answer lies in his longest essay, "Soviet Myth and Reality," in which he discusses "the end of an illusion." Other reviewers with more detailed knowledge of the U.S.S.R. will debate the significance of many of his excoriating charges. Suffice it to say here that his argument is that Russia is moving away from rather than toward socialism. He finds, to be sure, that her economic structure is "historically progressive" compared with the capitalist economy of other countries, but that "in every other respect," socially and culturally, she is "regressive," and often brutally so. It is interesting to note the mixed conclusions to which this argument leads him. He declared that he is still a Socialist, and that the failure of the Russian experiment against the backward and reactionary background of czarism "neither proves nor disproves the possibility of socialism." Yet he says in another essay that if he had to choose between living under a Commissar or a Blimp, he would "unhesitatingly choose Blimp." And yet again he recognizes that the only aim of "the conservative position" is "to maintain somehow the status quo... to counter dynamism by inertia. It holds no promise for the victors and has no plan for the vanquished."

Koestler is most symptomatic of recent history in the degree to which he has made politics a substitute for religion. He knows now that the Soviet Union he yearned for was a myth. But he still seems insufficiently aware of the reasons for his disillusion. He made such impossible demands for an immediate utopia that his dreams inevitably turned into a nightmare. Others who have expected less from Russia will give more weight than Koestler does to her economic advance within a single generation. And looking ahead to the increasing interplay between Russia and the rest of the world during the next generation, they will not speak as though the Stalinist state must remain an unchanging iron-age.

The most salutary lesson Koestler has learned is "that economic factors are important, but not all-important," that there is more to human history than nineteenth-century materialism conceived. He is now suspicious also of the of the shallow optimism that stemmed from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, of its ignoring of the dark irrational forces in man. He believes that we have to recover what religion taught: "that there are two ways of knowing: exploration of the horizontal, worldly planes, and contemplation of the vertical or transcendental order."

But in reaching that position he appears now upon the verge of another mistake, as disastrous as was his perfectionist's demands upon politics. He is so much the uprooted intellectual that he seems to have no religious tradition to which to turn, and has to take refuge in a vague personal mysticism. He sees through such oddities as the yoga of General Heard, yet apparently believes that methods of contemplation survive only in Oriental philosophy. He seems to forget the implications of what Richard Hillary wrote to the fellow-pilot he admired most: "In an age when to love one's country is vulgar, to love God archaic, and to love mankind sentimental, you do all three."

It may be one of the real assets of being an American now that we don't need to feel so uprooted and without an effectual past. If we want enough to recover the force of religious truth and the transforming power of love, we can find them through our own inheritance from Europe. "That all men are created equal" was a political formulation, but it took for granted the background of Christian ethics. Our most profound social affirmations, as in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, are both political and religious. And it is equally striking that the strongest renewal in our theology today is through such a figure as Reinhold Neibuhr, who is concerned with both Christianity and democracy, with the individual's relation to society as well as to the universe.

The evidence is the same in our imaginative expression. Our creative writers of the nineteenth century who impress us now as the most searching are those like Melville and Hawthorne, who did not yield to easy uplift but maintained an acute awareness of the tensions between good and evil, both within man and in the external world. And the new poets- here or abroad- with most conviction of religious truth are those like Auden or Karl Shapiro who are not turning to the Yogi, but are trying to recapture the living truth in such terms as Original Sin and Grace. There is no need to accept Koestler's artificial absolute separation between Change from Without and Change from Within. We can be whole men in a potentially decent society only if we have recourse to both.

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