The Five Stirring Stanzas That Proved a Poem Can Help End a War

In 1918, a few lines by a Hungarian desk clerk spurred a revolution that helped end the Great War. Her words still ring true today.

“We need no two-headed eagle!” one protester shouted in Budapest on the evening of October 30, 1918. The eagle was the Austro-Hungarian coat of arms: a double-headed black bird clutching a sword and crown in its talons. It was the emblem of a monarchy that had controlled Hungary since 1867. Rioting men scurried up the facade of a nearby building and tore down the Empire’s ornament to a cheering crowd. Down the street, outside Gerbeaud, the city’s finest patisserie, the throngs were so thick that it was impossible to see over anyone’s head. 

This was the Hungarian Revolution of 1918. Two days earlier, citizens had marched across the city demanding that the Archduke József appoint Mihaly Károlyi as their Prime Minister. The Central Powers were at the brink of defeat in World War I, and the people wanted to choose who would determine the future of their country. They despised the monarchy and pinned their hopes instead on Károlyi: a politician who championed Hungarian secession, universal suffrage, and peace. When Archduke József denied their request and had three protesters killed, the Hungarians steeled themselves for a fight.  

Over the last two days of October, the streets of the Hungarian capital swarmed with all manner of civilians: factory workers, newspaper editors, intellectuals, servants. According to one participant who recorded his memories in “The Hungarian Revolution: An Eyewitness Account,” taxis stopped mid-street, surrounded by protesters on all sides. Passengers had to be pulled out, and then they also joined the ranks of demonstrators singing revolutionary tunes.  

There were soldiers, too. The troops patrolling Budapest in the autumn of 1918 were known to be especially brutal – they were ruthless Bosnian mercenaries – and their order from the government was to quell any uprising. The monarchs knew World War I had been lost, and that instability was approaching. What they didn’t grasp was that after the carnage of the Great War, these fighters wanted nothing more than to go home, and the quickest route was through a regime change that would release them from their oaths. You can imagine their relief when pamphleteers started passing out revolutionary leaflets in their barracks, declaring, “Soldiers! The [revolutionary] National Council releases you from your old oath. From now on you owe your allegiance to the National Council.”  

There was another flyer making the rounds, a reprint of a poem written in 1914. Its title was spelled out in large block letters: “To my soldier-son.” The five stanzas spoke directly to the army in the voice of a soldier’s mother begging her son not to suppress an upcoming workers’ demonstration. Each stanza ends with the same bold-face imperative: “Do not shoot, my son, for I too will be there! And sure enough, when the people gathered outside Budapest’s Hotel Astoria that night, cheering on Mihály Károlyi as he spoke to them from the hotel balcony, hordes of soldiers joined them – not to shoot, but to protest by the people’s sides. 

Zseni Várnai and her signature from a book published in 1942. (Photo: Zseni Várnai Selected Verses 1941-42)

The woman who wrote the poem was 28-year-old Zseni Várnai, my grandmother’s aunt. A photograph of Várnai from 1918 shows her in a long, dark dress, with tiny buttons all the way up to her sternum. Her hair is loosely pulled back, her hands hidden out of sight behind her back. She was far too young to be the mother of a soldier, but she did have a toddler named Gabor, who clings to his father’s leg in the picture. Várnai’s expression seems too somber to belong to someone whose enthusiasm would pull thousands onto the streets of Budapest. And yet, according to the eventual Swedish ambassador Vilmos Böhm, “To my soldier-son” became the rallying cry of the revolution. 

“In the afternoon, the posters [of Várnai’s poem] appeared on the streets,” he wrote. “The city’s image changed in one hour…. The whole city echoed with the words: ‘Do not shoot, my son, for I too will be there!’”  

It was the perfect poem for the historic moment: anti-war, anti-violence, and written for the people. Its pacifism relies on the essential bodily connection between mother and child, and its imagery is as unsubtle as a revolution. “My precious heart, my handsome soldier son,” the first line begins, “I write this letter with my blood to you.”  

As Várnai goes on to describe the physical bond between the maternal figure and her baby, she emphasizes the injustice of nurturing a child who eventually destroys you:

My soldier son, I carried you inside me,
I suckled you and cradled you to sleep,
I gave you day and night, my every moment,
now read these shaky lines and hear me weep;
flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, I ask you,
how could you fire when you hear the prayer
that I will scream and wail towards your army:
don’t shoot at us, my son, I will be there!

In the poem, the narrator’s love for her son expands into a tenderness that includes farm workers, slaves, and peasants. She warns the soldiers that the government will command them to attack their own families, and she compares their position to mistreated workers with too few rights. “The blood of slaves is raging in your veins,” she insists. Várnai appeals to the enslaved son inside each man, directing them not to murder the mothers who gave them life, but to refuse their commanders’ orders. No battle will lead these soldiers to true glory, Várnai’s poem emphasizes. Instead, a tide of common citizens will one day “conquer with an overwhelming force.” Várnai implies to both soldiers and peasants that their freedom relies on a peaceful mutiny.  

Because “To my soldier-son” universalized the experience of government exploitation, the poem ended up appealing to masses of non-soldiers, too. When pamphleteers circulated the poem in coffee shops and bars to rally the civilians, people responded passionately. Mario D. Fenyo, in his 1987 volume “Literature and Political Change: Budapest, 1908-1918,” paints a vibrant scene: “Soldiers, workers, and others walked with leaflets on the streets, the whole city resounding with the poem’s rousing refrain… The demonstrators entered cafés and mounted a table or a chair to recite the poem; the guests would rise to their feet and join.”  

As the rebels continued to gather, they became insurmountable. Finally, at around seven the following morning, October 31, the Archduke József called Károlyi to his palace. The King had authorized Károlyi to form a new government for the First Hungarian People’s Republic. Austria-Hungary was dead; the Central Powers were broken; the war would end less than two weeks later. Várnai’s poem had helped invoke an insurrection.  

* * * 

Despite the success of the 1918 revolution, Zseni Várnai’s legacy remains complicated. In the public imagination, she’s remembered as a one-dimensional poet concerned with motherhood, flowers, and peace. If you type Zseni Várnai’s name into Google, you’re likely to find her poems on Hungarian mothers’ blogs, written in cursive against pastel backgrounds. With her photo on cheerful Pinterest tableaus with captions like, “Zseni Várnai: Mama,” casual readers would hardly associate the poet with topics like war and mutiny. Rather than casting Várnai as a writer who used motherhood as a framework for making political statements, history has neutralized her poetry, rendering her as a woman who wrote about being a mom. The story of her legacy proves the fluidity between personal and political outlooks, and how easily one can eclipse the other – either to stoke the fires of a revolution, or to erase problematic political memories altogether. 

When 18-year-old Várnai graduated from Budapest’s Academy of Performing Arts in 1908, the capital was flowering intellectually. It was the perfect place for an artistically inclined young woman like Várnai, who had trained as an actress. Known as the “Paris of the East,” the city teemed with artists, writers, scientists, and mathematicians, many of whom would go on to win Nobel Prizes. Scholars gathered in coffee shops along the Danube, most famously at the Art Nouveau styled Café Gresham. New literary magazines proliferated on newsstands. One in particular, called “Nyugat” (“The West”), came to be regarded as the gem of Hungarian intellectual life. Founded in 1908, it was a biweekly journal with colorful covers; some issues were pastel blue, while others had images of eye-catching red-and-black flowers. Its contributors became Hungarian literary legends: Endre Ady, Gyula Krúdy and Zsigmond Móricz. Many “Nyugat” writers had socialist sympathies, and their community became a political-intellectual force helmed by literati.  

Zseni Várnai with her son, Gábor Peterdi, and husband, Andor Peterdi, in 1918. (Photo courtesy The Heritage Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry, Safed.)

Várnai and her husband, Andor Peterdi, mingled with “Nyugat” writers. When war broke out, the couple took a hard stance against it – an unpopular opinion in a country that was eager to fight. This was not Várnai’s only radical opinion. A Social Democrat, she stood for universal suffrage, equality of the sexes, workers’ rights, and a government that ruled domestically, not from Vienna. Though a handful of her poems appeared in “Nyugat,” Várnai was a much more regular contributor to the Social Democratic daily paper “Népszava.” It was “Népszava” that originally printed “To my soldier-son” (“Katonafiamnak”) for the first time around 1913, and that published Várnai’s first volume of “proletarian” poetry under the same name the following year.

The “Katonafiamnak” collection placed Várnai into a central debate around the merit of political poetry. In a hotly contested “Nyugat” essay, social scientist Ervin Szabó argued that a poet motivated by policy was no poet at all. Real art must be able to outlive its political moment, and labeling Várnai’s work as “proletarian” was too limiting.  

Szabó seemed to foreshadow Várnai’s constricting role in the Hungarian imagination. Perhaps “To my soldier-son” faded from consciousness because the poem didn’t outlive its moment after all – a moment that turned out to be shockingly fleeting. Even though the 1918 uprising was successful in installing a new government, the First Hungarian People’s Republic was chaotic and short-lived. The country was dissolved in March 1919, reinstated in August 1919, and dissolved again for good in March 1920. The independent nation stayed intact as the Kingdom of Hungary, but it was no longer a social democratic entity. A poem like “To my soldier-son,” written so clearly with a timely aim in mind, didn’t have much longevity. 

As fascism swept through Europe in the 1930s, Várnai’s outspoken anti-fascist stance and socialist leanings turned her into a visible target. Soon enough, Várnai was no longer grappling with the political moment so much as it was grappling with her. As a Jew, she was under constant threat of deportation. Her work was outlawed as communist “propaganda.” When the Nazis invaded, Várnai formed a resistance group with Nobel-prizewinning biologist Albert Szent-Györgi, hiding other Jewish Hungarians in a cave near the border of Budapest. When the hideout was raided in December 1944, she found safety in the home of a reverend and his wife, who hid Várnai’s family until liberation.  

From the steps of the parliament building, the Hungarian communist politician Béla Kun announces that the proletariat has taken control of the government in 1919. (Photo from “Cecile: An Outlaw’s Diary. Revolution,” 1923)

Still, the changing political climate can’t entirely explain how Várnai’s poetry came to be perceived as more feminine than political, especially because she continued publishing prolifically after the war and stayed involved with progressive political organizations in Budapest.  

In 1956, she won one of Hungary’s most prestigious literary awards, the Attila József Prize, and by the time she passed away in 1980, she had written 40 volumes of poetry, fiction, drama, and children’s literature. It’s true that Várnai was raising a son and a daughter, and that many of her volumes were built on maternal themes – their titles include “Mother of Gracchus” and “Song of the Mother” – but even those without such obvious names were billed as matriarchal. The cover of her 1940 collection “I never give up hope” contains both her portrait and the subtitle: “Verses from a Mother’s Heart.” The packaging of her texts made it glaringly clear that Várnai was a female poet, with the emphasis on female.  

Some contemporary summaries of Várnai’s work have sexist undertones, as well. In the “Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers,” the critic Peter I. Barta subtly insults Várnai’s intelligence. He writes that “her vision of the world is relatively simple,” crossing the line from commenting into an ad-hominem attack. When he does analyze her poetry, he centers his synthesis on Várnai’s pathos and plays into the stereotype that women are governed more by feelings than by logic: “Many of her conventional rhymed, rhythmic poems are expressive and are informed by strong emotions.” It’s not that Barta dismisses Várnai’s work on the grounds that she’s a woman, but that his critique shows how easily gender can color the elements we choose to notice in an author’s work.  

Várnai seemed cognizant of the limitations imposed on her as a woman when she wrote “To my soldier-son.” The poem itself hinges on inverting gender roles and reclaiming a voice – the mother’s voice – that authorities don’t want to acknowledge. “To my soldier-son” suggests that by owning their maternal roles, moms can shift the power balance in a male-dominated society. The final lines of the poem gesture at the possibilities for a world in which mothers have
influence:

Just think… if every mother sent a letter,
each to her son, to soldiers everywhere,
awakening, inflaming, agitating:
don’t shoot at us, my son, for I too will be there!

When Várnai wrote the piece, women were unable to exert their political will through voting or running for office. They could, however, make their wishes known to the men they had the most power over: their sons. Stepping into that power was a form of protest.  

That said, even more scholars who recognize Várnai’s political sway seem hesitant to comment on the aesthetic merit of her writing.  

“Some of her poems are quite beautiful,” said Ivan Sanders, adjunct professor of Hungarian literature at Columbia, when I asked him what he knew about Várnai. “But they’re a little too…” he trailed off. “They’re not difficult.”  

I knew what he meant. Poems like Várnai’s have gone out of style for being too earnest, too straightforward. She freely uses exclamation points and rhymes, which can come across as trite. Sanders tipped his hat to Várnai for her unwavering pacifism during WWI, but, he adds in his 1985 essay “Hungarian Writers and Literature in World War I,” her warmongering peers “were incomparably greater artists.” Even the scholar Mario D. Fenyo, whose father founded “Nyugat,” admits in “Literature and Political Change: Budapest, 1908-1918” that “her poetry seldom hit the mark.” The critical opinion seems united: Várnai was second-rate. 

Still, Várnai’s name remains recognizable among many Hungarians. During a visit to Budapest earlier this year, I sat down with gender studies scholar Andrea Pető. When I asked her about Várnai, she immediately knew whom I meant. “There are very few female poets, and she was pretty successful,” Pető told me. “Later on, she somehow very smoothly became part of the communist regime. But there is no biography of her.” It seems possible that Várnai was a proponent of Hungary’s late communist government, installed in the 1950s and known for its torture, censorship, and, ironically, violence against anti-government protesters. In light of communism’s current reputation in Hungary, perhaps it’s no coincidence that readers would rather not dwell on Várnai’s political impact.  

Given her present status as a poet-mother, it’s fitting that Várnai’s children have been among her most dedicated memory-bearers. Her daughter Mária Peterdi stayed in Europe after World War II and became an Egyptologist; eventually, she helped her mother write “Like a Storm, the Leaf,” one of Várnai’s several autobiographical novels. Várnai’s son Gabor Peterdi became a widely successful graphic artist and painter, studying at the same studio as Picasso in Paris and eventually moving to New York City. Among his paintings is a portrait of his mother, sitting in a wine-red dress with a book in her lap. Mária and Gabor are some of the only documenters who depict Várnai as a multi-dimensional human, without the easy labels of “socialist” or “mother.” 

Even if Várnai’s poems are destined to remain on parenting blogs as Mother’s Day tributes, her words are much more meaningful when they’re recontextualized in today’s political climate. In Hungary, the current government continues to come between mothers and their children, even when those children are still in their mother’s womb. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and right wing party, Fidesz, promote their version of traditional family values, which means undermining the country’s policy of legal abortion, and mandating that all babies be delivered in hospitals, regardless of the mother’s preference. Midwives who assist women with home births can be jailed.  

Policies like these underline the inseparability of personal and political experiences, for moms and every infant they bring into the world. Várnai’s legacy shows that it’s futile to erase the influence of politics, and that even those writers that critics snub, whose Google searches yield very unliterary results, can start revolutions.

* * *

Full Poem:

From In Quest of the Miracle Stag: The Poetry of Hungary

Translated by Peter Zollman

To my soldier-son (Katonafiamnak)

My precious heart, my handsome soldier son,
I write this letter with my blood to you.
Since you’ve had to take the Kaiser’s shilling
our world has turned red of a fiery hue.
The big decisive battle is approaching
and you will be our enemy, beware!
When they command you to attack your own blood:
don’t shoot at us, my son, I will be there!

The fertile womb of Mother Earth is stirring,
she eyes the armies of the worker-slaves
who’ll sow the seeds of life in virgin furrows,
she wants those vital reproductive waves.
Now soon we’ll test our formidable forces,
we’ll leave the cornfields mercilessly bare,
the living soil shall be our insurrection:
don’t shoot at us, my son, I will be there!

My soldier son, I carried you inside me,
I suckled you and cradled you to sleep,
I gave you day and night, my every moment,
now read these shaky lines and hear me weep;
flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood, I ask you,
how could you fire when you hear the prayer
that I will scream and wail towards your army:
don’t shoot at us, my son, I will be there!

You are our hope, our life, you are our fullness,
Messiah, Christ, who gloriously reigns!
My son, you hold our fate within your power
the blood of slaves is raging in your veins;
the heady fever of the revolution
shall sweep you gloriously in the air,
and whip the oceans in a roaring tempest:
don’t shoot at us, my son, for I too will be there!

The seas run high now, bitter storms are raging,
the haughty ship is struggling on the course,
but think… the tides could breach the old defences,
and conquer with an overwhelming force!
Just think… if every mother sent a letter,
each to her son, to soldiers everywhere,
awakening, inflaming, agitating:
don’t shoot at us, my son, I will be there!”