John Zapolsky, A Central European

Anton Hykisch

(Translated by Peter Petro)

His erudition, refinement, imagination and cruelty, as well as his will to power, are worth Shakespeare´s pen. However, the native of Stratford never set his foot in Central Europe, on the Pannonian planes, or the woods of the Carpathian basin, and so the Globe Theatre never got to see the swagger of a Central European.

On the pages of the chronicles, the Zapolskys (Zapolyas) emerge in the fifteenth century as an insignificant family of poor landed gentry from Croatia. They were of Slavic birth, and yet became favourites of the Magyar patriots. Under the coverlet of Latin, there did not exist yet in the Central European kettle the living feel for a national and linguistic community.

Matthias Corvinus, the king of the people, the hero of legends, the object of gratitude from Tatras to the Sava, the husband of the spoiled Beatrice of Aragon, the patron of renowned Italian humanists at the Court of Buda, the founder of Corvina Library, and the last of the great Hungarian kings, was also the founder of the Zapolsky family´s glory. He aided the career of Stefan Zapolsky who became the governor of Austria, the main commander of the vanquished Vienna. Following the death of the King Matthias, he became the Palatine of Hungary. Seventy two castles and twelve thousand villages on the territory of the present Slovakia, Hungary and Transylvania formed the capital with which Zapolskys entered the history at the end of the fifteenth century.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, during the reign of the timorous Wladislaw Jagiello, it became possible, during the terror of the Turks, for someone who wanted to become a king to really become one.

The young John Zapolsky was brought up to be a king. His sister got married to the Polish King Sigismund and was already a Queen.

John Zapolsky was a Central European, well versed in various languages of the old Hungary. In him, the Slav meets the Magyar noble upbringing and the education of the mighty joins with plebeian cordiality of the low classes. His life was the life of passion. He was playing for power while on the borders of the abandoned kingdom stood the Turks who pushed up the Balkans towards the heart of Europe where the first flowers of the renaissance and the reformation were beginning to bloom.

John Zapolsky, (Zapolya in Magyar) the Prince of Transylvania, the ”Garden of Paradise” of the future Magyar poets, was a man with an imagination. In that age, a man with an imagination could dream about the old Greece and Rome. He could become a humanist and build the first renaissance buildings. He could write Latin tracts about the just government. He could die in a battle against the pagan Turks. He could sing of those battles in heroic epics.

John Zapolsky used his imagination differently. After the defeat of the Dozsa´s rebel peasants, the Prince Zapolsky had George Dozsa, the former noble and crusader, placed on a burning throne. The red hot throne was the foreshadowing of the arrival of a devastating imagination. This was the introduction to Shakespeare, for the contemporary chroniclers still described John Zapolsky as an effeminate man with outbursts of hysteria.

Prince Zapolsky was camping with his army behind the Tisza river, but did not move a finger to help his young King Louis II Jagiello in the terrible battle of Mohács. In the blaze of 29th August 1526, the Hungarian King Louis died in mysterious circumstances. Some say that he ran from the battle and drowned with his horse in the swamps (Venetian Ambassador Fazio di Savoia). Others hold that the body of the King was not found on the battlefield, but in the village of Csele (Bishop Brodaric). The entry in the Turkish military journal is laconic: ”As for the King, we do not know if he is dead or alive.” Remarkable is also György Szeremi´s version: ”There were three stab wounds on the body of the King.” He assumes that the killer of the young King on the run in the helter-skelter of the Battle of Mohács could have been the Count George Zapolsky of Spiš, the brother of John. Later on, a document about the course of the Battle of Mohács is found in Vienna archives with a statement: ”The King was killed by the hand of the enemy.” Whose hand?

John Zapolsky would wait until Mohács destroyed the flower of the ruling class of that age, and after the end of the battle, would appear with a sad face in Székesfehérvár (Stuhlweissenberg). There he would bring a corpse assumed to be that of the King Louis II, and bury it with full honours. A few days later, the remnant of nobility elected him the King of Hungary with the name of John I. (A month later, a group of the same nobles, as if sobered up from the shock, elected under the cools buttresses of the Franciscan church in Bratislava Ferdinand Hapsburg, the brother of the widowed Queen, the King of Hungary. A year later Ferdinand was crowned by the same Bishop of Nitra, Stefan Podmanicky, who crowned John Zapolsky). The protagonists entered the stage, the tragicomedy began.

Turks poured into the centre of Hungary and John Zapolsky reigned under the protection of Turks. John I became their accomplice. He cruelly punished the ”gangs” of Croatian and Slavonian peasants who escaped from the Turks to the North in an effort to fight them. These peasants were lead by a determined fighter whom they called their Tsar, Jovan the Black.

At first the masses of peasants caused a bitter defeat of the Hungarian magnates. Zapolsky´s armies faced a bigger battle than the Mohács. They say some thirteen thousand dead were left on the field. The revenge of Zapolsky´s clique of magnates was horrible. They aroused themselves for a new battle and dispersed the masses of the Southern Slavs. Tsar Jovan the Black, wounded in the battle, hid in a house in Szeged. Zapolsky´s soldiers stabbed him to death right in his bed.

And now Pretender John Zapolsky dined in the Castle of Buda, where he was installed with the help of the Turkish Sultan. He would dine and drink good wines to the victory. Lost in thought, he would eye a large bowl in the middle of the table. It was the head of Jovan the Black preserved in vinegar.

Central Europe in the twenties of the sixteenth century was no Orient. John I was no Herod. In front of the intelligent and effeminate Zapolsky there was no dance of the bayaderes, or the vehemence of Salome and the head of the enemy on the tray was not brought in front of the tyrant by the depraved women.

No. Here, in Central Europe, the ruler dined alone. It was only that the head of his enemy lied pickled in vinegar. The chronicler wrote:

”The King occasionally ate, drank and constantly repeated: ´Where is your faith?´”

This is how the Central European was talking to a motionless head with bulging eyes and the face of the enemy. The head was repulsive and his cheeks were covered with an unpleasantly black eczema.

However, what does the question ”Where is your faith?” mean?

A reproach to Jovan the Black? The humility of thought? The ridicule of the enemy? A dialogue about the advantages of the intellect? A hint about the weakness of Jovan´s faith? The ancient superstition that one of them has a better personal god and protector than the other?

Or is it a pity of one´s self, a silent and elegant lamentation, a confession with a hint of chivalry, a dialogue with oneself, a return to childhood, to one´s principles, that is, a curious theological caprice? A nostalgia over the fugitive world of morality which cannot be reached even with the fastest Turkish horses? (Given him by the Sultan as an expression of his vassalage.) Was it cruelty, or the ability to bear the weight of the moment?

For centuries later, during the Second World War, Ante Pavelic, the leader of the Croatian state received an Italian journalist and writer (one of the great spirits of the perishing old Europe) and without any hesitation showed him on his working desk a vase containing dozens of eyes cut out of human heads. ”The gift of my faithful Ustashas.” With this description Curzio Malaparte successfully corrected Shakespeare´s omission.

There still remains a question: What is the origin of the peculiar form of cruelty which, in the Central Europe, presents a confrontation of the meditating murderer over the victim and the will to possess a piece of the head of the victim or his entire head, while calmly eating or receiving guests? (Cut to the SS officers in concentration camps, dining by the lampshades from human skins).

Where does the indestructibility of cruelty in such a mild a cultured zone of the world as ours come from?

Comparative anthropology may help with examples from similar practices found among the Indian tribes of both Americas (scalping, head shrinking).

Do we not think much of our European culture, although it may be possible that the ethical layer we are so proud of is only a clumsily attached veneer hiding the naturalness of a Barbarian? Are not the Germans, Slavs, or Hungarians (despite of the chauvinistic illusions of their historians) the descendants of the wild tribes hailing from Asian steppes? During many centuries their invasions penetrated into the heart of Europe where they assimilated and civilized themselves finally in such a narrow insignificant space compared to the breadth of Asia.

The history of mankind is the history of improvement. When we look at the result we should try to be a little more humble. We should also be a little more vigilant. We should try to prove daily with our acts that the hypothesis about our former barbarity is not valid, because we do not want it to be valid. In each of us sleep demons of imagination whose awakening we have to fear. Particularly now, in our nuclear age.





Translated from the book: Anton Hykisch: Obrana tajomstiev (Defence of Secrets), Smena, Bratislava 1990

Translation from Slovak original: Peter Petro, Vancouver, B.C., Canada