Koestler, Arthur (1905–1983)

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KOESTLER, ARTHUR (1905–1983)


Political activist, anticommunist, Zionist, author of novels and popular science books.

Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest, Hungary, on 5 September 1905 to parents from the assimilated, prosperous Jewish bourgeoisie. He attended school in Budapest until 1919, when his family, fearing anti-Jewish disturbances, temporarily relocated to Vienna. He remained there, attending a private school and then studying engineering at the Vienna Technische Hochschule. He joined a Jewish student society and fell under the spell of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of right-wing Revisionist Zionism. He left the university in April 1926, intending to settle in Palestine. Koestler failed as a pioneer, surviving only with the help of his Revisionist friends. After a spell in Berlin in mid-1927, he fortuitously obtained a post as Middle East correspondent for the Ullstein newspaper chain. He worked as a journalist in Palestine, Paris, and Berlin from October 1927 to December 1932.

As science correspondent for the Berlin Vossische Zeitung, Koestler joined a zeppelin expedition to the North Pole in 1931, a coup that made him famous. Responding to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, he joined the Communist Party in December 1931, largely as a means to combat fascism. Covert activities for the party cost him his job. After a period of political activism in Berlin, in July 1932 he traveled to the USSR to research a pro-Soviet book. He remained there until March 1933, when he moved to Paris and entered the world of antifascist exiles. From 1933 to 1938 he worked spasmodically for Willi Münzenberg, the Communist entrepreneur and propagandist.

Koestler briefly spied for the Communist Party in Fascist-held Spain in August 1936. While covering the fall of Malaga in February 1937 for British and French newspapers, he was seized by Francoist forces and held in prison under sentence of death. He was released in May 1937 after his wife led a campaign to save him. He then journeyed to England, where his account of his ordeal, Spanish Testament, brought him celebrity.

During 1937–1939, Koestler lived mainly in Paris and worked as a freelance journalist and writer. His first novel, The Gladiators (1939), reflected his disillusionment with the Communist Party. Nevertheless, in October 1939 he was arrested by the French authorities as a dangerous alien and interned in Le Vernet camp until January 1940. Koestler returned to Paris but in June fled to escape the German invasion. He went underground in unoccupied France and escaped to England via North Africa and Portugal. He reached England in November 1940, where he was temporarily imprisoned as an illegal alien.

In December 1940 influential political and literary friends rescued Koestler from prison. He was now lionized as the author of Darkness at Noon, a powerful attack on communist beliefs that was published while he was in custody. Despite his fame he joined the British Army, serving in the Pioneer Corps, until discharged on health grounds in March 1942. During the next two years he worked for the Ministry of Information, writing scripts for propaganda films and radio. He completed another novel, Arrival and Departure (1943), and a collection of essays, The Yogi and the Commissar (1945), that included a potent critique of the Soviet Union. Arrival and Departure contained a sequence describing the mass murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Koestler was unusual in comprehending the catastrophe, but his efforts to stir public opinion failed. After the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944, he was involved in desperate rescue efforts. His widowed mother survived the war in Budapest, but many other family members were murdered in Auschwitz. In December 1944 Koestler traveled to Palestine, where he wrote Thieves in the Night (1945), a novel advocating Zionism.

Between 1945 and 1955 Koestler was torn between politics and science. He collaborated briefly with Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and George Orwell (1903–1950) in an attempt to refound politics and morality on a scientific, value-free basis while avoiding the errors of discredited left- and right-wing ideologies. He frequently visited Paris to enlist French intellectuals, including André Malraux, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. He also traveled to the United States, where he rallied anticommunist intellectuals. In mid-1948 he spent several months covering Israel's war of independence and researching Promise and Fulfillment (1949), an account of how Israel had emerged. It concluded by admonishing Jews to choose between total assimilation or emigration to Israel.

In early 1949 Koestler purchased a home outside Paris. It became a hub for European anticommunist intellectuals such as Raymond Aron and Ignazio Silone. Koestler inspired The God That Failed (1950), an influential collection of confessional essays by former communists, and orchestrated the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which staged a major anticommunist rally in Berlin in 1950. Despairing of Europe, in October 1950 he moved to the United States. Meanwhile he wrote an outstanding volume of autobiography, Arrow in the Blue (1952) . Disappointed by America, he returned to London in September 1952 and completed a second volume, The Invisible Writing. In a collection of essays, The Trail of the Dinosaur, published in 1955, he renounced political activism in favor of scientific writing. But he devoted much energy to the campaign against capital punishment in England.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Koestler wrote popular science books, including The Sleepwalkers (1959), The Act of Creation (1964), and The Ghost in the Machine (1967), in which he inveighed against behaviorism. He published a travel book investigating India and Japan, The Lotus and the Robot (1960), and a fifth novel, The Call-Girls (1972), satirizing jet-set intellectuals. His last original work, The Thirteenth Tribe (1976), attempted to prove that European Jews were descended from the Khazars rather than the Semitic tribes that once inhabited the land of Israel.

Koestler had a tempestuous private life, married three times, and fathered an illegitimate daughter, whom he refused to acknowledge. He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1971 and a Companion of the Royal Society of Literature in 1974. In his seventies he developed Parkinson's disease and cancer. Koestler was an advocate of voluntary euthanasia and took his own life on 1 March 1983. His third wife committed suicide with him under controversial circumstances.

See alsoAnticommunism; Camus, Albert; Zionism .


Cesarani, David. Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind. New York, 1999.

David Cesarani