In the summer of 1939, my grandfather Erich Haugas took part in an international agricultural conference a thousand miles away in Budapest. He was 38 and his professional pride was flattered. As a chemist he was in charge of the Dairy Export Control Station laboratory in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. To his untravelled eyes this was the trip of a lifetime: Budapest was the last stretch of Western ‘civilization’ before the East and the closest to a west European capital that many east Europeans would get. No direct train went to Budapest: my grandfather had to take three trains through Latvia, Polish-occupied Lithuania, Poland and the Nazi vassal state of Slovakia: a round trip of 2,300 miles. Europe was very close to war, but to my grandfather the rumours of war were just that: rumours.
Eric Ambler, ‘unquestionably our best thriller writer’, according to Graham Greene, published his fifth and perhaps finest spy novel that fateful year of 1939. In pages of atmospheric prose The Mask of Dimitrios (published in America as A Coffin for Dimitrios) anatomizes the heart of Europe’s darkness on the eve of war. In it, an English university lecturer and writer, Charles Latimer, travels to Istanbul by train via Sofia sometime in the late 1930s in order to gather material for a novel, only to find himself entangled in the affairs of a Greek criminal, Dimitrios Makropoulos. Ambler’s storytelling powers and mastery of suspense were at their height. The writing combines the precision of a chemist and engineer – two professions Ambler deeply admired – with the sense of melodrama he inherited from his parents, who were music-hall artists based in south-east London.
My grandfather was never caught up in an Ambler-like mesh of intrigue abroad but his journey to Hungary took him through a mass of shifting European frontiers el
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In the summer of 1939, my grandfather Erich Haugas took part in an international agricultural conference a thousand miles away in Budapest. He was 38 and his professional pride was flattered. As a chemist he was in charge of the Dairy Export Control Station laboratory in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. To his untravelled eyes this was the trip of a lifetime: Budapest was the last stretch of Western ‘civilization’ before the East and the closest to a west European capital that many east Europeans would get. No direct train went to Budapest: my grandfather had to take three trains through Latvia, Polish-occupied Lithuania, Poland and the Nazi vassal state of Slovakia: a round trip of 2,300 miles. Europe was very close to war, but to my grandfather the rumours of war were just that: rumours.Eric Ambler, ‘unquestionably our best thriller writer’, according to Graham Greene, published his fifth and perhaps finest spy novel that fateful year of 1939. In pages of atmospheric prose The Mask of Dimitrios (published in America as A Coffin for Dimitrios) anatomizes the heart of Europe’s darkness on the eve of war. In it, an English university lecturer and writer, Charles Latimer, travels to Istanbul by train via Sofia sometime in the late 1930s in order to gather material for a novel, only to find himself entangled in the affairs of a Greek criminal, Dimitrios Makropoulos. Ambler’s storytelling powers and mastery of suspense were at their height. The writing combines the precision of a chemist and engineer – two professions Ambler deeply admired – with the sense of melodrama he inherited from his parents, who were music-hall artists based in south-east London. My grandfather was never caught up in an Ambler-like mesh of intrigue abroad but his journey to Hungary took him through a mass of shifting European frontiers electric with future troubles. In 1937 and 1938, Ambler wrote a string of espionage thrillers – Uncommon Danger, Epitaph for a Spy, Cause for Alarm – that unfold along the disputed frontiers of pre-war Europe. Sensing the gathering emergency, he cut his characters adrift in a world shadowed by Nazi and Stalinist terror. Chemists, commercial photographers, export travellers, engineers, journalists: Ambler’s are lower-middle-class anti-heroes far removed from the hunting-shooting-fishing brigade depicted by Sapper and John Buchan. Often they have foreign blood or are not wholly British. Josef Vadassy, the refugee teacher wrongly accused of espionage in Epitaph for a Spy, was born in Hungary and has a Yugoslav passport. (‘If you don’t mind my saying so, you don’t look British,’ he is told.) Spy novels had existed before Ambler, but few had described the treachery and double-dealing inherent in the trade in a Europe that was about to detonate.
*With a suitcase packed for a two-week absence, my grandfather arrived at the Baltic Station in Tallinn in the early hours of a July morning. He surely was filled with nervous anticipation. Latimer himself feels a sense of unease when he boards his train for Sofia. Frontiers have a dynamism of their own in Ambler’s spy fiction and set off a reflex of anxiety. The Tallinn platform was buzzing with the excitement of an imminent departure. The Estonian State Railways train to Budapest was made up of smart dark green carriages, and in the restaurant car the tables lit by small lamps were already laid for breakfast. The purser showed my grandfather to his sleeping car compartment. The station clock struck the hour – 9 a.m. – and the train began to move. Passengers adjourned to the dining-car. My grandfather was still at breakfast when the train reached the Estonian university town of Tartu (where, in 1901, he had been born to a minor Tsarist functionary). At Valga four hours later the train stopped. Valga was on the Estonian-Latvian border and rife with smuggling. Estonian police in grey fatigues came down between the lines with leashed dogs. They made a list of all the passengers – names, nationalities – and searched some of their luggage. A number of Polish and Lithuanian nationals got on. Szepsel Berkman, an accountant, was on his way to see Jewish relatives in Vilnius in Polish Lithuania. Jews were not popular. Admiral Horthy, the anti-Semitic and anti-Slav regent of Hungary, had allied himself with Hitler in the hope of reclaiming land lost to Hungary after the First World War. With the Führer’s help Horthy had already recovered parts of southern Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruth (the birthplace, incidentally, of Andy Warhol’s mother Julia Warhola). In Ambler’s espionage, European power-politics are a dirty game where a nation’s fate is often decided in the boardroom and political ideologies are determined by the dictators. Belching steam, the train edged backwards out of Valga through a level crossing. The Latvian border – a stretch of no man’s land called the Neutral Zone – was closed off by a barrier of red and white, the Latvian colours. An official with the Red Lion and Silver Griffin of Latvia on his cap stamped my grandfather’s passport and three hours later the train pulled into the Latvian capital of Riga. Columns of steam rose from the waiting engine while porters loaded the guard’s van with crates of food and alcohol. From Riga the train proceeded to Daugavpils (Dvinsk under the Tsars). Daugavpils had a rich Jewish culture (the American painter Mark Rothko was born there in 1903) but the station would soon facilitate the industrial horror that was Hitler’s war on Polish Jewry. Ambler’s most politically engaged thriller, Cause for Alarm (1938), set in Fascist Italy on the eve of Mussolini’s 1938 legislation against Italian Jews, was written in response to the threat posed to Europe by anti-Semitic populist political movements. Before long the train had reached Zemgale, the border point between southern Latvia and Poland. The station, built in 1922, today serves as a Roman Catholic church but in my grandfather’s day it was a vital crossroads. Unsurprisingly, Zemgale stood on contested land. In 1920, after seizing a sliver of Lithuania, Poland had confiscated part of Latvia’s border close to Zemgale. As a result, violence was mounting daily between Lithuanian and Polish nationals. From Zemgale the train settled to its rhythm, passing through the Polish border station of Turmonolo (now Turmantas in Lithuania), a main transit point for Kharkiv in Soviet Ukraine. From Turmonolo my grandfather arrived at Vilnius, the de jure capital of Lithuania, which Lithuania had surrendered to Poland in 1922 following the Polish-Lithuanian War that broke out after the First World War. (Vilnius was ‘Wilno’ to the Poles.) Before long the train was moving across western Belarus and then it arrived at Bialystok, the largest city in north-eastern Poland, situated today in the so-called Suwalki Gap, a 60-mile-long strip of Poland and Lithuania straddled to the west by Putin’s Russia and to the east by Belarus under Putin’s dictator ally Lukashenko. If there is to be a Third World War, say the experts, it may flare up in this region. Warsaw approached and in their sleeping compartments the passengers stirred. A mass of blast furnaces and ancient castles rose along the line. At Warsaw Central the passengers got off and changed trains. The new train went all the way to Athens via Istanbul (where, we learn early on in The Mask of Dimitrios, Makropoulos has been murdered and his body dumped in the Bosporus). During the three-hour wait at Warsaw under the station’s glass vaulting my grandfather enquired at the Slovak embassy if Slovak visas were required of Estonian nationals. The embassy said they were not. As a newborn republic, Slovakia felt a kinship with Estonia, which had declared independence from post-Tsarist Russia in 1918. On 8 July – day two of my grandfather’s journey across Ambler country – the frontiers of Poland and Slovakia converged at the Polish station of Czaca on the edge of Nazi-occupied Czech lands. Strikingly, the two Polish borders my grandfather had crossed thus far – at Zemgale and Czaca – were the result of inter-war nationalist annexations. In the autumn of 1938, while Ambler was at work on Epitaph for a Spy, Poland had grabbed a part of Slovakia close to Czaca, an annexation of Czech-governed territory that amounted to an attack on fellow Slavs and appeared to put Warsaw on the same low moral level as Nazi Berlin. The Polish government was now actively pursuing right-wing anti-Semitic policies of varying toxicity. Sunlight flooded the carriage as Polish officials boarded the train and examined my grandfather’s papers. They stamped a circular blue CZACA in them before the train inched forwards across the frontier into Slovakia, in what was once the Czech Republic. Everything was quiet at Čadca. In this wolf-harbouring part of the Carpathian Mountains with its hazel spinneys and flower-filled summer meadows the Slovak people lived under Hitler’s shadow. Everyone in Slovakia – even Jews – had a swastika in their passports. Slovakia had allied itself gratefully to Hitler on its secession from Czechoslovakia in March 1939; by the time Ambler finished The Mask of Dimitrios the Nazis had marched into Prague and effectively dismembered Czechoslovakia. Slovakia was poised to become the gateway of the new Nazi empire into the Balkans and the Occupied East. Hundreds of miniature red, white and black swastika flags fluttered along the Čadca station platform. The Slovak customs police with their red shoulder boards and peaked caps greeted my grandfather with a ‘Heil Hitler’. Did he give the Nazi salute in return? (One of the first decisions any foreign traveller had to make in Axis Europe in 1939 was whether or not to outstretch the arm in fascist greeting.) Soon afterwards the train approached the Hungarian border station of Losonc (today Lučenec, in southern Slovakia), where passengers had to disembark and queue up outside a customs shed. Hungary was still nominally a monarchy and a Royal Hungarian policeman looked through my grandfather’s paperwork with slow deliberation before stamping M.KIR – ‘Kingdom of Hungary’ – in his passport. For a fee of 50 fillérs (the ‘penny’ of interwar Hungary) he was granted a Hungarian visa ‘posteriorly’ as he had neglected to secure one back in Tallinn. The wheels thudded along the tracks towards Budapest. The Danube flowed alongside, less a waterway than a mirror reflecting vanished Austro-Hapsburg lands. In its east-west meander from Bavaria to the Black Sea the Danube had united under the double-headed eagle Turkish Tartars, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Bulgarian Muslims, Jews, Roma and Russian Old Believers: East to West, Muslim to Christian. Few wished for the Hapsburg empire’s return yet Hitler and Stalin between them were about to unleash a viciousness far greater than anything the German-Hungarian rulers in their Vienna fastness could have dreamed of. Jewish communities would disappear overnight as monarchical semi-tolerance was replaced by totalitarian intolerance. Fascism had become Europe’s new ‘sacred religion’, as Ambler wrote in Cause for Alarm. Something new was beginning in the Danubian heartlands: quite what, no one yet knew. After Szob the couplings strained and my grandfather’s train at last pulled into Budapest-Keleti. The station, all elaborate gilt and stucco with marble Germanic Hapsburg nymphs and satyrs under the architraves, had no equivalent in the Baltic. After Tallinn, everything looked gigantic. People dashed frantically down the platform to secure seats for Istanbul and other east-west connections. Over the platform hung a smell of charcoal smoke and fried paprika pods: unfamiliar Magyar smells. My grandfather took a taxi to Pest on the Danube’s left bank where he unpacked at the Danube Palace Hotel. Next day the conference opened beneath the Renaissance dome of the Hungarian Parliament building. Delegates were welcomed over champagne and platters of Danube sturgeon roe. As Estonia’s representative my grandfather had to shake hands with Admiral Horthy but what he made of the Magyar dictator is not recorded. He gave a series of talks on dairy chemistry and food preservation. He visited the great Hungarian plains beyond Budapest and swam in the Gellért thermal baths near the Franz Josef Bridge where for the first time he became aware of Budapest’s huge non-Magyar component – the so-called ‘nationalities’, the Serbs, Croats, Romanians and Slovaks who made up half of Hungary’s population. The Mask of Dimitrios is haunted by the collapse of the Hapsburg, Ottoman and Tsarist empires and by the populations displaced by war from Odesa, Kyiv, Smyrna and Istanbul. Ambler had brought the political thriller to maturity in post-imperial Europe. By the time Erich Haugas came home to Tallinn in late July 1939 the Second World War was less than two months away. The Baltic city with its medieval ramparts and quaint cobbled streets seemed so far removed from the tide of world events as to be almost unreal. The hotels were full of tourists, there was a fever of entertaining and drinking in the nightclubs. Darkness was about to fall on the unhappy continent of Europe.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 78 © Ian Thomson 2023
About the contributor
Ian Thomson is a writer and journalist. He is currently working on a book for Faber on the Baltic during the Second World War.