August 11, 1895 – Count László Ede Almásy de Zsadány et Törökszentmiklós
It remains confounding how figures from history are de-gayed by writers and filmmakers.
László Almásy was a desert explorer and Nazi smuggler who may have spied for both sides in World War II. He is also the hero of The English Patient (1996), Anthony Minghella‘s film based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje. The English Patient won the Booker Prize and the film version won nine Academy Awards. It was voted the best Booker Prize-winner of the last 50 years in 2017. The film version stars Ralph Fiennes as Almásy, who has a passionate affair with a married woman, played by Kristin Scott-Thomas. But, Almásy was gay and he didn’t have a smoldering romance with anyone’s wife.
While the plot is pure fiction, some of the characters and the events were adapted from Geographical Journal articles describing the expeditions of the real Almásy into the African desert. But, was he really a German secret agent? Did he betray his best friend in the explorers’ club by seducing his new wife? Did he pretend he was English when shot down in flames and captured, his face and body grotesquely charred?
Born in a part of Hungary in what is now Austria, and educated in England, he joined the elite British 19th Hussars in World War I. Almásy was shot down over Italy, continued as a flight instructor, and after the war became a winning speed racer. After driving along the Nile from Egypt to the Sudan in 1926, Almásy became entranced by the desert and led expeditions in search of the mythical city oasis Zerzura, long rumored to have existed deep in the desert west of the Nile River, going back to writings from the 13th century.
Through an adventure-strewn life that took him to wildly different nations and cultures through two World Wars, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the takeover of his country by the Communists, Almásy seemed to be many things to many people.
Fans of Fiennes’s handsome hero might be unhappy to know that the real Almásy was described in a British intelligence MI5 file as “very ugly and shabbily dressed, with a fat and pendulous nose, drooping shoulders and a nervous tic“. It also turns out that Almásy served German military intelligence in World War II and then, apparently, spied for the USSR. For his daring on the side of the Nazis, he was awarded an Iron Cross by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
The Almásy portrayed by Fiennes in the film, is a dashing explorer who falls in love with another man’s wife while working with the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa, and he helps the Nazis only so he can to be reunited with his lover. In real life, he was an intrepid explorer, but he was also a queer man who wrote passionate letters to Hans Entholt, a young German officer he tried to help avoid going to the Russian front. He was also a monarchist, obsessed with the idea of returning the Hapsburgs to the throne of an Austrian-Hungarian Empire even when it was clear the empire was beyond redemption. And the real Almásy was a man who was willing to work for whomever suited him best at the time.
Always ready for an escapade, and disappointed at the disappearance of the Empire, Almásy drove Prince Karl, the nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, into Budapest in 1921 in an attempt to restore the monarchy. Karl gave Almásy the title of “Count”, which, because it was not an authentic hereditary title, Almásy only used while traveling.
In the 1930s, Almásy offered his services to British intelligence. He was turned down because he was suspected of being pro-German. He then offered himself to the Italians, and they, too, turned him down. He informed the Soviet-controlled Government in Budapest that a Hungarian official was smuggling treasures of the famed Esterhazy family from Hungary into Egypt. On the strength of Almásy’s information, the official, Victor Chornoky, the son-in-law of Zoltan Tildy, the then Hungarian president, was called home from his post as Ambassador to Cairo, sentenced to death and hanged.
Yet, Almásy’s major espionage work appears to have been for the Nazis. He lauded them for their invincibility and cited Rommel for his humanity in a book he wrote With Rommel’s Army In Libya (1943).
The real Almásy, with his astute knowledge of the North African desert, was specifically requested in 1940 from the Hungarian Government, then sympathetic to though not officially allied with Germany, by the German military for work with Rommel. For a while, Almásy was in Berlin, then transferred to the desert headquarters.
He was given the rank of major in the German Air Force. Almásy made many audacious raids. Driving a captured British Ford car through British lines in the North African desert, he traveled nearly 2,000 miles through the desert, relying on the oases he knew from his expeditions in the 1930s, to take the infamous German spy, Hans Eppler, to an oasis near Cairo. In a mission code-named Operation Condor, Eppler was then able to set up a German intelligence headquarters in a houseboat on the Nile.
Almásy also made two daring attempts to get the pro-German head of the Egyptian Army, Masri Pasha, out of Egypt so that the Pasha could help Rommel take Egypt. He also audaciously planned an archeological desert museum as a front for German espionage. The museum plans were scratched in 1936 because the Egyptian King learned that the museum was planned as a cover.
Six years later, while in Rommel’s service, Almásy sneaked into Cairo for 10 days. On his way out, the British confiscated his briefcase and found a list of the people Rommel planned to kill when he occupied Egypt.
Some critics have pointed out that by ignoring the Almásy work for the Nazis, Ondaatje trivialized the significance of the choices men like Almásy made. Ondaatje has always maintained that the character was only loosely based on the life of Almásy, and for the emotional, poetic, view that he was striving for Almásy’s politics and social world were irrelevant. He chose to think of him as an explorer, a man transfixed by the desert. If he was on any side at all, he was probably entirely a Hungarian.
After the war, the Communists took over in Hungary and Almásy was arrested for alleged war crimes and treason for joining the armed forces of a foreign power. The charge was based mainly on his book about his wartime experiences. During the trial it was pointed out that neither the prosecutor nor the judge had read the book, because it was placed on the list of banned books list by the Soviet occupation forces. Almásy was acquitted, with the help of some influential friends. However, after the trial the KGB started looking for him.
He escaped from Hungary with the aid of the British Intelligence, which reportedly bribed Hungarian Communist officials to secure his release. The bribe was paid by Alaeddin Moukhtar, cousin of King Farouk of Egypt. The British got him into British occupied Austria using a false passport, then on to Rome. When Almásy was pursued by a KGB hit squad in Italy, he escaped to Cairo. But who knows, if Almásy had any contacts with British intelligence during and after the WW II, any evidence is still in unreleased intelligence files.
Back in Egypt, Almásy supported himself with odd jobs, some related to aviation, and leading expedition to other parts of Africa. In1950, King Farouk appointed him Director of the newly founded Egyptian Desert Research Institute.
Almásy did not die of a morphine overdose after suffering terrible burns like Fiennes in the film. Instead Almásy succumbed to amoebic dysentery in 1951. The epitaph on his grave in Salzburg, erected by desert enthusiasts in 1995, reads: “Pilot, Sahara Explorer, and Discoverer of the Zerzura Oasis”, leaving out “homosexual” and “Nazi”. He was 55 years old when he crashed for good.
The lover, Entholt, died during Rommel’s retreat from Africa after stepping on one of his own side’s landmines. There are over 80 published letters to
Almásy’s beloved young German officer. But unavailable to the public, there is said to be proof that he also had sex with several Egyptian princes and British diplomats. The letters are archived at the Heinrich Barth Institute for African Studies in Cologne.