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Count István Pálffy, Hungarian aristocrat who fled the country in 1956 – obituary

Count István Pálffy (Image provided by The Telegraph)

Count István Pálffy, who has died aged 89, stood as a candidate in the Hungarian parliamentary election in 2018 aged 85. Though he was not elected, he was immensely proud of standing in a constituency that his grandfather had represented from 1872 until he died in 1933. He stood for Momentum, a party of young people which rejected the Right-wing policies of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

First published in The Telegraph, 6 July 2022

I am grateful to Daniel Bamford for bringing this to my attention.

Pálffy was born into one of the oldest aristocratic families in Europe. When writing his family history, he chose the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title The First Thousand Years. His great passion was history, and he liked to say that he received his education at the hands of the vagaries of history. The Second World War broke out on his first day at school; the Nazis marched into the territory of their Hungarian allies in 1944 and, soon after, he was to become a victim of Soviet communism.

Though born into the purple of Hungarian aristocratic life on both sides of his family, Pálffy only enjoyed the benefits which that station offered for a few years of his boyhood. By the time he was 15, he had been declared by the new Communist regime to be a class enemy and an enemy of the people. He was expelled from his private school and compelled to work as an unskilled labourer. He was later sent as a prisoner to a forced labour camp before escaping to England in 1956.

Count István Pálffy ab Erdőd was born in Budapest on 22 May 1933, the son of Count Ferenc Pálffy ab Erdőd and Countess Júlia Apponyi de Nagy Appony. His father’s family claimed descent from a Swabian knight who had settled in Hungary around the year 970.

His mother’s family was ennobled in the 13th century. His mother, who was related to Queen Geraldine of Albania, married Patrick Leigh Fermor’s great friend, Elemér von Klobusiczky, immortalised as “Istvan” in his book Between the Woods and the Water.

Both families produced legions of soldiers and diplomats in the service of Hungary. Therefore it delighted Pista Pálffy when he was press-ganged into the new communist-led army and given the lowest possible rank in the hope of humiliating him. This move did not have the desired effect. “You see,” he joked with friends, “I am the first Pálffy in history to be in the army and not be a general.”

In the long line of ancestors, in which he took pride, it was his maternal grandfather, Count Albert Apponyi, of whom he was most proud. It fell to him to lead the Hungarian delegation at the Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919; on his shoulders rested the terrible burden of returning to Hungary with the dictated terms of the Treaty of Trianon. This instrument reduced the ancient kingdom of Hungary to a mere rump state.

The outbreak of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 allowed him to escape Hungary. Tall, elegant and with a decidedly aristocratic roll to his pronunciation of the letter “r”, Pálffy cut an unusual dash at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read Moral Sciences.

He felt comfortable in England. His great-uncle, Count Albert Mensdorff, had been Austrian ambassador. István already spoke English fluently, and there was a ready-made group of Hungarian émigrés willing to welcome him.

He was grateful to Cambridge for absorbing this exotic Hungarian aristocratic exile. At Trinity Hall, he had an unusual encounter with CS Lewis when, on an after-dinner stroll back to his rooms, the tongue-tied and slightly nervous Pálffy broke the ice by asking Lewis if he thought the English obsession with the weather had anything to do with the sinking of the Spanish Armada.

Lewis remained silent, but the next day sent Pálffy a note saying he had found a reference in a medieval play showing the English obsession with the weather predating the Armada’s sinking by several centuries.

On leaving Cambridge, Pálffy was at a slight loss as to how he might use a degree in Moral Sciences. A friend advised him to try advertising, “because that profession is not too fussy about degrees and probably considers Moral Sciences to be all about being a good person”. A few years spent in the advertising industry provided him with an income but little intellectual satisfaction.

He was a regular patron of London’s famous Hungarian restaurant, the Gay Hussar in Soho. He once arrived for lunch to find a delegation from the Hungarian Communist Party being entertained by some diplomats. The Hungarian head waiter, sensing the potential sensitivity of the situation, asked him if he wished to be seated as far away as possible from the group. Pálffy replied: “Not an inch, put me right up against them.”

He found his intellectual metier in the emerging computer industry and applied his intellect to designing information systems for libraries; as a private consultant, his clients were as diverse as the British Museum Library and the Shah of Iran. Before the fall of the Shah, he spent several years travelling to Iran to develop the computer system for a proposed National Library. He also advised the Iranians on how they might apply developing computer technology to modernise their blood transfusion service.

With the collapse of Communism in 1989, István Pálffy returned to his native Budapest, where he bought a flat on the Rózsadomb, a hill in Buda overlooking the city. There, in his book-lined rooms, he was regularly sought out by historians such as Norman Stone or by those who were simply curious to know about a man who had survived the vicissitudes of communism without bitterness.

A son and a daughter survive him. His wife predeceased him.

Count István Pálffy ab Erdőd, born May 22 1933, died July 2 2022