Book log

Nazi or hero?

Published April 6, 1999 12:53AM (EDT)

Novelist Michael Ondaatje has been criticized -- most notably in the Washington Post -- for his glorification of Count Lazlo Almasy, the Hungarian hero of "The English Patient" and a historical figure who acted as a German operative during World War II. As a fiction writer, Ondaatje can claim creative license. Recently, however, another romantic version of Almasy's life has been advanced -- this time by a historian.

Last month, Janos Kubassek, a respected Hungarian scholar, published "The True Story of the English Patient," a biography that has yet to find an English translator. Kubassek, the director of the Hungarian Historical Museum in Erd, purports that Almasy, an expert geographer and guide to the deserts of North Africa, was -- contrary to the claims of detractors -- no Nazi. He also maintains that, in 1944, after the count had returned to his homeland and the Nazis were pressuring Hungarians to turn over their Jews, Almasy actually saved the lives of two Jews.

Kubassek's evidence is based on a Hungarian war-crimes tribunal that, in 1946, cleared Almasy of any wrongdoing after a two-hour trial. Almasy had been indicted on the relatively minor charge of propaganda. The prosecutors used Almasy's geographic research as support for the charge. Not surprisingly, given the nature of this evidence, Almasy was cleared.

"That case was a show trial with a happy ending," says Janos Mazsu, a professor of Hungarian social history at Indiana University who taught the 41-year-old Kubassek at Debrecen University in Hungary. In a less biased court, perhaps, Almasy's 1943 memoir, "With Rommel's Army in Libya" -- which contains an homage to the Desert Fox -- might have led to a different decision. Kubassek's assertion that Almasy saved the lives of two Jews is based on the same court records. Kubassek's biography, like the novel and the movie, also glosses over Almasy's homosexuality and his affair with Hans Entholt, a young German officer killed during the war. (Mazsu describes Kubassek as "a sensitive and talented young scholar.")

Born in 1895 at what is now known as the Bernstein castle (currently a tourist attraction for Almasy fans), the monarchist count worked for the Germans before the Hungarians joined the Axis powers in 1941. Almasy eventually enlisted in Rommel's Afrika Korps as a lieutenant and led a 2,000-mile expedition through the Libyan desert with two German spies. For his gallant efforts, Rommel awarded him not one but two Iron Crosses. When the war ended, Almasy organized safari tours in Africa. One Hungarian ex-fascist has also alleged that Almasy worked as an informant for the Soviet-controlled Hungarian government. In 1951, Almasy died of dysentery in Austria. Almasy makes for a dashing, exotic hero in the novel and screen versions of "The English Patient," the embodiment of doomed love. But in real life, every aspect of Almasy's life (including the question of whether he was truly a count) is hotly contested. Was he a patriot merely doing his duty to his country, or did he fully embrace the Nazi cause? This question has implications not just for Almasy and his admirers and detractors, but for Hungary itself, a nation still grappling with its complicity with the Nazis during World War II.

Perhaps these mysteries have only added to Almasy's allure. Four Feathers, a New Jersey film production company, is currently making a documentary about the geographer's adventures -- and the debate about his true inclinations.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

MORE FROM Craig Offman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------