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September 01st 2008 print

Patrick Morgan

On Burchett by Tibor Meray

This book by the well-known Hungarian author Tibor Meray has an unusual genesis. Meray and Wilfred Burchett worked together as propaganda journalists behind the communist lines during the Korean War. Meray was spreading germ warfare allegations, and Burchett interrogating allied prisoners of war, activities of which neither could be proud. But soon afterwards, their paths diverged. Burchett went on to report communist show trials in Eastern Europe, where he agreed with the implausible accusations of the government prosecutors. Many people were executed for no reason. Meray, up till then a fervent communist apparatchik, began to have doubts about the show trials, and became a dissident communist in Hungary.

Out of this came the incidentwhich caused Meray to write this book. Meray asked Burchett to his home in Budapest to meet some surviving victims of the show trials, hoping Burchett would be moved by their fate, and report this in the West. Burchett declined. But Meray was shocked to read some decades afterwards in Burchett’s autobiography that Burchett described this gathering as the beginnings of a counter-revolutionary plot, which led to the Hungarian revolution. Burchett slandered Meray and his colleagues as cowards and illegal gun-runners, even though some had been executed after the uprising failed. Burchett was retrospectively damning the victims. This breach of hospitality, to put it mildly, was too much for Meray, it stuck in his craw, and he decided to investigate Burchett’s whole career in the light of this incident. If Burchett could treat Meray and his friends this way, what had he done to others?

Meray analyses key incidents in Burchett’s career, producing detailed arguments demonstrating Burchett’s unreliability as a witness. This is an important book because Meray himself was not a cleanskin—he shared many of Burchett’s original weaknesses. So in writing this book Meray has had to admit guilt in many things he and Burchett were complicit in. But, unlike Meray, Burchett continued to defend communist atrocities even after communist parties themselves had ceased to defend them. Burchett never admitted he had helped condemn innocent people. He put it all down the memory hole, and blithely went on to similar pro-communist campaigns elsewhere, transferring his affections from a great mass murderer, Stalin, to an even greater one, Mao.

Meray makes some general points about Burchett. Communism began with the noble aim of supporting the oppressed against the powerful, but Burchett anomalously ended up supporting the strong battalions, powerful governments, against defenceless individuals. Meray quotes Burchett saying that, if a journalist sees a bully bashing a child, he should drop his objective role as a journalist, and go and help the child. All very well, but how often in his own life did Burchett go and help the bully?

There is not much left now of Burchett’s reputation as a political ideologue. A few lone supporters soldier on against damning recent evidence, unearthed by Peter Hruby from Soviet bloc files and published in the Australian, confirming Burchett’s Communist Party membership.

Perhaps, though Burchett’s support of communism may repel us, he was at least a good, even an outstanding journalist? Meray has his doubts. Burchett never came to a situation and simply reported it; he imposed his own ideological preconceptions on it. Is this good journalism? His little pen portraits are ludicrous and childish. All the baddies, the anticommunists, those supporting the West, are depicted as scowling, cynical, and so on, whereas citizens in communist countries are in Burchett’s writings contented, cheerful, industrious folk happy with their lot. About a show trial defendant, Burchett wrote that László Rajk had “a smile, but a smile with no warmth in it”—this facile impression was enough to condemn a man already on his way to the gallows. Burchett admitted his aim was not just to report history, but to change it.

Here Meray points out a fact I had never realised. There was something equally important to Burchett as communism, or even more important, and that was himself. Meray shows that Burchett always put himself at the centre of attention, at the centre of the picture—he saw himself as the real mover and shaker. He depicted himself as a crucial negotiator at various stages between India and China, and between the North Vietnamese and the Americans, but Meray shows that Burchett’s role was not important. Burchett was big-notinghimself. He claimed to have been present when the Hungarian revolution was being hatched, the gathering at Meray’s place, but this meeting was about reparation for the show trials.

Burchett’s main narrative came to be about himself: “I was there when great events happened”, was Burchett’s boast, and his sub-text was: “I was an actor in them, a crucial player”, always on one side. He was a great self-promoter. Many world-travelling polemical journalists have since unfortunately imitated him, unfailingly putting themselves at the centre of their stories.

Interestingly, Tibor Meray came to Melbourne in 1959 to speak at the Peace Congress here. His presence embarrassed the local Stalinist organisers, who refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

The reading public is indebted to Bill Hyde, a Hungarian who has lived in Australia for many decades, for arranging the publication of this important book. On Burchett is a book by a distinguished and truthful journalist, Tibor Meray, on a fellow journalist who does not deserve those epithets.

In the Australian of June 28-29 the English philosopher A.C. Grayling described present-day Marxist ideologues as “a sort of antediluvian breed of self-describing hairy mastodons”. Communism is discredited and gone, and Burchett’s dwindling band of supporters can’t openly praise communism, so support of Burchett has been the next best thing. The publication of Meray’s book has provided a great service—its detailed exposure of his career has finally shredded what little reputation Burchett had left. Mark Aarons’ long review of the book in the Australian Literary Review was crucial, as an acceptance from the Left side of politics of the full case against Burchett.

Burchett’s apologists now have nowhere to go. They admit Burchett was a member of the Communist Party, that his germ war allegations were untrue, that his support of the show trials is indefensible, that he followed the communist line, that he was poor journalist, and so on. The only thing left for them is to complain that the Australian government took away his passport. Poor Wilfred the victim. They lamely turn their scorn on their own government for giving him a slap over the wrist with a feather, rather than condemning Burchett for all the infamous things he did during his long career.