Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) authored one of the 20th century's great political novels, Darkness at Noon, as well as a number of other fictional works and essay collections which explained the ethos of Communism to the West.
The son of a successful businessman and a mother who despised everything Hungarian, Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest on September 5, 1905. Thanks to his mother's insistence on speaking German and a series of German, French, and English governesses, he was rather fluent in four languages by the time he was ten.
He attended the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, where he became an ardent Zionist. In 1925, the year after his father's business failed, he ran away to Palestine, where he worked as a laborer in a commune, an advertising salesman for a Hebrew newspaper in Haifa, an assistant to an architect, a lemonade vendor, and an aide to a land surveyor. After a brief stint as the editor of a paper financed by the German legation in Cairo, he returned to Europe.
There he was named Mid-East correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse (New Free Press) and the Ullstein chain of papers, the biggest in Europe; two years later he became their correspondent in Paris. In 1930 he was recalled to Berlin by the Ullsteins to serve as their science editor, arriving on the very day when the Nazis scored a significant election victory, increasing their representation in the Reichstag from 12 to 107.
As the German centrist parties collapsed, the only strong foe of the Nazis was the Communist Party, and Koestler joined it in 1931. He toured Russia in 1932 and 1933 and, exiled from Germany, spent three years as a wanderer in Vienna, Paris, and London, existing mostly on jobs he did for the party.
In 1936 he was assigned to cover the Spanish Civil War for the New Chronicle of London. The next year he was captured by the rightist Franco (Nationalist) forces and sentenced to death; the intervention of the British government saved his life. He wrote of his experiences in Spain in Spanish Testament, also titled Dialogue with Death, in 1938 and that year left the Communist Party because of the Moscow purge trials. Of this move he wrote, "I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and the corpses of the drowned."
In 1940 Koestler published his masterwork, Darkness at Noon, one of the finest novels to deal with Communism and a work as acclaimed for its artistic unity and integrity as for its explanation of events which had baffled much of the world. The book clarified the purge trials of 1936-1938 as only an ex-party-member could have clarified them.
The roots of the trials went back to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although V. I. Lenin was the political and intellectual father of the Communist Party's rise to power, several other men also played major roles: Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek, Grigori Zinoviev, and Joseph Stalin. All were members of the Politburo, the ruling board of the party. After Lenin's death in 1924 Stalin gradually assumed more and more power, much to the dismay of the other "Old Bolsheviks," who found their authority increasingly undermined.
On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, a Stalin protegé who headed the Communist Party in Leningrad, was assassinated by a liberal young party member who said he had been influenced by the writings of Zinoviev. Some assert that Stalin himself arranged the murder, but, whatever the circumstances, Stalin used the shooting as a springboard to launch a series of purges to eliminate his potential rivals, which culminated in four major trials.
These were the Trial of the Sixteen in August 1936, in which Zinoviev and Kamenev were found guilty and shot; the Trial of the Seventeen in January 1937, in which Radek and Piatakov, the deputy commissar for heavy industry, were found guilty; the secret trial of Red Army generals in June 1937, in which Marshal Tukhachevsky, the chief of staff, was found guilty and shot; and the Trial of the Twenty-One in March 1938, in which Bukharin and Yagoda, the chief of the secret police, were found guilty and shot.
What especially puzzled the outside world was that so many party leaders pleaded guilty to such bizarre charges as working with the espionage services of Britain, France, Germany, and Japan; plotting to assassinate Stalin; attempting to destroy the U.S.S.R.'s military and economic power; and planning to poison masses of Russian workers.
Nonetheless, plead guilty they did in shockingly abject language, and many non-Russians were convinced that the Soviet state had had a narrow escape. Among them was U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who wrote of the Bukharin trial in Mission to Moscow, "All the fundamental weaknesses and vices of human nature—personal ambitions at their worst—are shown up in the proceedings. They disclose the outlines of a plot which came very near to being successful in bringing about the overthrow of the government."
It remained for Koestler and Darkness at Noon to explain what had happened. In his novel, the Old Bolshevik N. S. Rubashov is arrested and taken to prison. He is given a confession to sign admitting to a series of crimes, including trying to poison No. 1 (Stalin), all of which are clearly preposterous. He is interrogated by two men: the first is Ivanov, a former fellow-soldier and, like Rubashov, an ironical intellectual, while the second is Gletkin, an example of what Stalin called the "New Soviet Man." Ivanov is content to accept from the prisoner an admission of his deviations from the party line; for this Ivanov is shot. Gletkin, on the other hand, insists on an unqualified confession to every accusation while wearing Rubashov down physically and psychologically.
The dedicated Communist Rubashov now faces a choice: he can admit nothing and die in silence or he can perform one last service for the party to which he has given his life: confess and die as a traitor, retaining the hope that history will vindicate him. Rubashov chooses the latter course, stigmatizing himself in the courtroom as "criminal" and "low and vile." He is executed.
More than a political novel, Darkness at Noon is an examination of the question of ends and means and of the problem of a position taken by intellectuals which then falls into the hands of non-intellectuals. It is thus far more than journalism or polemics; as George Orwell wrote, "it reaches the stature of tragedy." There are echoes of this novel in Koestler's other works, such as the essay collection The Yogi and the Commissar (1945) and the novel Arrival and Departure (1943), in which the fascist interrogator of the young Communist hero indicates that he knows about the "Rubashov trial."
After World War II Koestler turned increasingly to non-fiction, specializing in essays popularizing ideas in science, philosophy, and psychology, with side-ventures into telepathy and astrology. In his later years he became an official of the British organization EXIT, dedicated to "the right to die with dignity." When he developed both leukemia and Parkinson's disease, he and his third wife, Cynthia, committed suicide together by taking drug overdoses in London on March 3, 1983.
Further Reading on Arthur Koestler
Koestler wrote four autobiographical volumes: Spanish Testament (1938), Scum of the Earth (1941), Arrow in the Blue (1952), and Invisible Writing (1954). Good biographies are Arthur Koestler by Wolfe Mays (1973) and Arthur Koestler by Sidney A. Pearson, Jr. (1978). There are also essays in The Novel Now by Anthony Burgess (1967) and in George Orwell: Critical Essays by George Orwell (1954).