Social science

The Arthur Koestler Story

[Cover Image: AAAAARGH!!, Bolton Probation, Phillip King Bronze Award for Sculpture 2018. Image courtesy of Koestler Arts.]

By Waltraud Pospischil

A voice for criminal justice reforms

Arthur Koestler [1905 – 1983] made a major impact by shining a light on the need of fair, humane conditions for people in detention. He published harrowing accounts of his own imprisonments at the beginning of WW2 and lobbied against capital punishment, which was still legal in the UK at the time. In 1962, he personally initiated and sponsored the Arthur Koestler Award. Only through his own generous donations were monetary prizes made available for artistic achievements of prisoners, detainees, and psychiatric patients. Following further sponsorship through him, it became a charitable trust in 1969, and he left monetary support for beneficiaries after his death in 1983.

Arthur Koestler, 1969


Born in 1905 in Budapest, when the city was still part of the pre-WW2 Austrian-Hungarian Habsburg Empire, he grew up witnessing social, ideological, political and scientific changes. He recalled controversial lived experience accounts and stories, documented through his extensive writing as a journalist and author. Koestler had close connections, often as a ‘critical friend’ to famous people of his time. It was an epoch where positive theories of change clashed with crude political power games, while everything drowned in the boiling pot of calamities leading up to WW2.

Koestler’s mother was a patient of Sigmund Freud; as a reporter he was aboard the Graf Zeppelin, heading to the North Pole in 1931; as a teenager he embraced the short-lived Bolshevik Revolution in Hungary, which influenced him to join the Communist Party of Germany later, but got disillusioned in 1938. Koestler later published “Darkness at Noon”, one of the strongest critiques of the communist regime under Stalin, which influenced ‘1984’ by George Orwell. He met Satre and Simone de Beauvoir; he discussed intellectual and political topics with prominent figures in the pre- to post-WW2 period. Once Koestler was able to settle in the UK in 1945, he was close to other iconic personalities, like Dylon Thomas and Bertram Russell.

Koestler’s support of prisoners and criminal justice reforms

Lived experience of extreme situations relate to hardship and personal suffering, which incentivise survivors to stand up towards initiating positive change. Koestler had plenty of his own:-

  • Málaga, Spain, 1937: Koestler got arrested after a coup from far-right nationalist troops which invaded Málaga while he was visiting as a journalist. He was contained in interrogation for over a week, witnessing arrested resistant fighters being tortured and executed daily. The Spanish nationalist movement – collaborating with German Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists – saw him witness others in his position being kicked, beaten, and bloodied through the Málaga jailhouse, which was crammed with prisoners they had picked up in the city and surrounding villages during Franco’s advance. Some were pulled through right in front of him, while he was tied to a chair, watched by armed guards. He heard the screams of those getting tortured in the next room, before they were dragged out again, lifeless…

“When the third victim was brought back, dead or unconscious, the elder of the Civil Guards shrugged his shoulders with a glance in my direction; it was an unconscious gesture of apology. In it was expressed the whole attitude towards life of a fifty-year-old gendarme who, on the one hand, had thirty years of service in a medieval country behind him and, on the other, probably had a wife, several underfed children and a pet canary. In it was expressed an entire human philosophy of shame, resignation and apathy. “The world’s like that,” he seemed to be saying, “and neither I nor you will ever change it.” The shrug of the Civil Guard is more vivid in my memory than the screams of the tortured.” [Dialogue with Death 1942, page 54]

  • Seville prison: After ten days, Koestler got moved to the main prison in Seville. He felt safe at first, because he thought there was a structure, without torture or unaccounted killings – a chance to get his case formally noted and to defend himself. He didn’t know he had been secretly sentenced to death already by his captors, without acknowledging him any rights or procedures, while his shocking observations prepared him for the worst:

“On the night of Tuesday seventeen were shot. On Thursday night eight. On Friday night nine. On Saturday night thirteen. I tore strips off my shirt and stuffed my ears with them so as not to hear anything during the night. It was no good. I cut my gums with a splinter of glass, and said they were bleeding, so as to obtain some iodized cotton wool. I stuffed the cotton wool in my ears; it was no good, either. Our hearing became pretenaturally sharp. We heard every thing.” [Dialogue with Death, page 175]

William Randolph Hearst called Koestler’s arrest an “unacceptable infringement of the rights of journalists to carry out their profession.”

 “The National Union of Journalists, in Britain, passed a resolution demanding that the British government intercede, and fifty-six Members of Parliament signed a letter in Koestler’s support” [Mealand L., The Road Worrier 2009]

Koestler’s friends in the UK stood up for him, bringing his pledge for release continuously to authorities able to intervene. After 103 days living through hell, he was freed in exchange with a captured high-profile Spanish nationalist.

  • Pre-war France: Koestler was not granted a UK visa, so he returned to his temporary home in France. Here he completed “Darkness at Noon”, a critique of Stalinism, where the main character, Rubashov, is a freedom fighter who becomes persecuted through a deranged outcome of the ‘better world’ he initially supported. The book draws from experiences of Koestler’s own imprisonment as well as his disillusions of previously supporting revolutionary socialist politics, while witnessing it degrading into totalitarianism.

“It was quiet in the cell. Rubashov heard only the creaking of his steps on the tiles. Six and a half steps to the door, whence they must come to fetch him, six and a half steps to the window, behind which night was falling. Soon it would be over. But when he asked himself, for what actually are you dying? he found no answer. [Koestler, “Darkness at Noon” 1948, p125]

  • Detained in a French Concentration Camp: While his friend, the sculpture Daphne Hardy, smuggled the script of “Darkness at Noon” to England after the Germans occupied Paris in 1939, Koestler got arrested. He was told by his captors that Daphne had drowned on a sinking ferry, and his publication’s draft was lost. “Scum of the Earth” describes Koestler’s experiences of incarceration under Vichi rule:

“It had a strange resemblance to Kafka’s novel, The Trial- that dream-like allegory of a man who, having received a mysterious convocation to attend his ‘trial”, strives and struggles in vain to find out where the trial would be held and what it would be about; wherever he inquires he receives non – committal, elusive replies, as if everybody has joined in a secret conspiracy: the closer he gets to his aim, the farther it recedes, like the transparent walls of a dream: and the story ends abruptly, as it began, in tormenting suspense. The High Court which Kafka’s hero is unable to find is his own conscience: but what was the symbolic meaning of all these nut-cracker-faced, nail-biting, pimpled, slimy features, spinning their spider webs of intrigue and sabotage in the bureaux of the French Administration?” [Koestler, “Scum of the Earth” 1948, p97]

A voice outlining mental health impacts on prisoners

For Koestler, the struggle to stay sane in incarceration became an immense battle: he faced deliberately organised, soul destroying conditions, intended to break inmates down and induce madness. As he wrote about their logic: ’If we break them down, society might not listen, believe or publish (ex-)prisoner’s stories anymore.’

We must ask ourselves at what point certain ruling infrastructures and laws could get classified as breaking human rights or going into the wrong direction?

– when even proactive people under arrest face unfair, severe pressure, without committing a crime, save for protesting and challenging unfair social rules or laws?

– when those punished for making wrong choices, entering the criminal justice system, not only receive the full weight of their prison sentence, but also, instead of accessible ‘rehabilitation’ pathways, have added punishments thrown on top, damaging their mental health and any prospects of fair future opportunities?

Researching Koestler’s life experiences should make everyone think: During his stay at Seville prison, he felt compelled to count holes, buttons, cracks, breaths – making sure always to step in the middle of flagstones, and recorded several other reactions which would be classified as OCD [4] symptoms in normal, social situations. But for prisoners like him, taken to extremes, such compulsions were the only thing left to give their oppressive, unnatural daily routines at least some structure. Koestler also confesses to the reader that no lived experience account of imprisonment reaches far enough to convey the full meaning of hopelessness and the senseless despair encountered:

“The life we led was a proof of man’s capacity for adaptation. I think that even the condemned souls in purgatory after time develop a sort of homely routine. That is, by the way, why most prison memoirs are unreadable. The difficulty of conveying to the reader an idea of a nightmare world from which he has emerged makes the author depict the prisoner’s state of mind as an uninterrupted continuity of despair. He fears to appear frivolous or to spoil his effect by admitting that, even in the depths of misery, cheerfulness keeps breaking in.” [Koestler, Scum of the Earth, p119]

1940-41, detained as undesirable alien in the UK

Koestler only got released from the concentration camp in the Pyrenees under Vichy rule after strong British pressure in 1940, but, again, got no UK visa granted. So, he joined the Foreign Legion just to get out of France, eventually reaching North Africa.  

Once there, he caught a ship heading to the UK right away, seeking asylum, but got detained after his arrival for not having an entry permit. British Nationality was not granted to him until 1949. Extra caution might have been placed due to his involvement with the Communist Party of Germany, between 1931 and 1938, even though his previous communist comrades criticised him for leaving the party.

When the “Hitler – Stalin Pact” [Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact] got signed in 1939, Koestler felt certain that ‘Totalitarianism’ was the main enemy, whether from left or right ideas. His disappointment on seeing so many ideas for a better world failing when put into practice saw him finding solutions outside political and ideological boxes. He embraced art, humour and creativity as ways forward.

On sociology, politics, and the dangers of wrong group dynamic

Academic studies, combined with his lived experiences, led Koestler to insights about human nature, whether acting as individuals or member of a group. He analysed the psychology of political powers and their lasting influences, concluding to be as ill-fated. He saw human beings as being born innately positive, affirming others, accepting diversity, and fostering a common humanitarian goal towards a better world. Various religious, ideological and political manifestos tried to steer and enhance these, but invariably got taken over and redirected to areas they had never originally intended to promote. Koestler likewise observed how words and language are more powerful than guns, arms, and bombs:

“Wars are not fought for territory, but for words. Man’s deadliest weapon is language. He is as susceptible to being hypnotized by slogans as he is to infectious diseases. And where there is an epidemic, the group-mind takes over.” [Koestler, Darkness at Noon, p144]

Koesler experienced a time where political and social foundations were continuously shaken up through gruesome fights, occupations, imprisonments, executions and wars by groups following different ideologies, all wanting power over previously established regimes or ruling groups. For him ‘anarchists’ come from all political corners, with a ‘quick win’ idea of overtaking what was there before through force:

“To the Anarchists the problem of the human race is as simple as cracking nuts: just smash the hard shell of social institutions and savour the delicious kernel. A fascinating theory: but it seemed to me rather doubtful whether trees would ever bear nuts without shells.” [Koestler, Dialogue with Death, Page 91]

Supporting prisoners through art

Koestler had first-hand experience of the soul-destroying negativity creeping into the minds of prisoners. It was easy for them to drift off even deeper into getting caught up into negative circles of their background dilemmas, with worsened personal and social pressure on their mental health. His ideas behind setting up the Koestler Awards are also outlined in his publication “The Act of Creation” (1964), which is a study of the processes of discovery, invention, imagination, humour, science, and the arts.

Koestler was also aware that art and language got abused by political powers as slogans and media/cultural propaganda, like his friend Walter Benjamin (who didn’t survive Nazi persecution) elaborates in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. He believed in individual creativity, describing it as an expansion of the mind, breaking through fixed, oppressive patterns of thoughts and behaviours through “bisociation” [1]: where elements of previously unrelated or apparently incompatible matrices of thought get blended into a new matrix of meaning by the creative person, resulting in a positive eureka effect that opens new horizons.

Psychology at this time followed behaviourism or cognitivism, which portrayed humans merely as an automaton, while disregarding the creative abilities of the mind. Koestler outlines his new approach by drawing on theories of play, imprinting, phase sensitive learning, motivation, Gestalt [3] psychology (meaning conveys entire patterns or configurations of perceptions rather than the sum of parts), system thinking and symbolism. For Koestler, art could beyond language and science:  

“True creativity often starts where language ends […] Einstein’s space is no closer to reality than Van Gogh’s sky.” [Koestler, The Act of Creation]

He affirms Ernst Cassirer’s idealistic philosophy of science, defining humans as “Animal Symbolicum” [2]:

“For man is a symbol-making animal. He constructs a symbolic model of outer reality in his brain and expresses it by a second set of symbols in terms of words, equations, pigment, or stone… his knowledge and means of expression is symbolical.” [Koestler, The Act of Creation, p 79]

On the question of freedom and reconstructing a better world through art, he notes:-

“Freedom of the will is a metaphysical question outside the scope of this book; but considered as a subjective datum of experience, ‘free will’ is the awareness of alternative choices.” [Koestler, The Act of Creation, p178]

While we grow through art and conscious reflection, getting empowered to change and have some choice to influence our future lives, we also leave alternatives – whether bad or good- behind:

“Every decision is like a murder, and our march forward is over the stillborn bodies of all our possible selves that will never be.” [Koestler, The Act of Creation, p 189]

It was Koestler who founded and funded creative opportunities for self-expression, wellbeing, mental health, recognition, positive life changes and social integration for all marginalised people who would otherwise be stigmatised and left behind.

Arkbound Foundation – lived experience insights and creative opportunities for people affected by incarceration

I want to share my own background, which links to several themes explored above. I have been a philosopher, artist, poet and writer from Austria, trained under the Scottish ‘anti’-psychiatrist R D Laing in London in the 80ties, whilst living as research student with Mary Barnes – who healed her diagnosed schizophrenia through art, in a Philadelphia Association safehouse. In 2017, I became a trustee of Arkbound Foundation, founded as a lived experienced, grassroots, social enterprise. Our charity proactively reaches out to those in custody, providing writing, mentoring, and publishing opportunities.

Government departments and civic society still face the unresolved issues pointed out by Koestler, in providing fair conditions, rather than to stigmatise and discriminate. Having a voice, access to wellbeing, legal support, career opportunities, arts, creativity and writing is a human right. It remains the case that people from disadvantaged backgrounds, with equality characteristics, learning disabilities, neurodiversity, mental health issues, victims of abuse, from broken homes, care institutions and poor schooling are most likely to get imprisoned.

But our society idealises rich and famous celebrities even when they make money in dubious ways without scruples. Many of the richest and most powerful people have escaped from moral and legal responsibilities, which contrasts deeply with the experience of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. High profile money loundering, tax evasion, bribery, fraud, misrepresentations and the like are presented as misdemeanour or peccadillo, while lower class convicts get continuously vilified. Rare, extreme cases make generally stigmatising, gruesome headlines; “being tough on crime” voter-winning slogans appear before elections.

A simple question arises: What choice does our society provide to an honest person with limited means, and a challenging background, towards a decent future career? Even activists and grassroots groups who care for our people and planet have little voice or way to make an impact, often getting criminalised through their efforts, while our government and laws protect rich elites and big businesses, whose actions all too often increase injustice, poverty and environmental destruction.

Arkbound Foundation continues Arthur Koestler’s legacy: we embrace our dedication, ambition and lived experience, providing a voice for marginalised people, empowering them to get seen, their stories heard, and society to listen. Our output delivery and theory of change are pathing new ways of creating comprehensive opportunities – making society fairer, while also caring for our planet. Every small achievement, every positive difference made for disadvantaged people or groups, is worth celebrating. We won’t shrug our shoulders like Koestler’s guard, descending into nihilism, with an excuse that nothing can be changed, as apparently ‘the world is like that’. Arkbound Foundation embraces creativity, linked to bisociation; we open new vaults for expression when words are difficult to find. We express Gestalt and symbolic understanding wholeheartedly in words and language, supporting our beneficiaries through our missions. If “man’s deadliest weapon is language” [Koestler, Darkness at Noon] Arkbound Foundation has the vision to turn it round positively and make words, writing and language a powerful tool to tackle injustice.

Please, reach out to us if you are one of those affected, or looking to help us initiate lasting positive changes through our projects and publications.

Terminological footnotes

[1] Bisociation How Creativity in Humor, Art, and Science Works: Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation – The Marginalian

[2] Animal Symbolicum – Human knowledge and understanding only functions through symbol making and symbolising. Coined by Ernst Cassirer Animal symbolicum – Wikipedia

[3] Gestalt – Humans perceive entire patterns or configurations, not merely individual components. The view is sometimes summarized using the adage, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

[4] OCD – “Obsessional Compulsive Disorder” (A mental and behaviour affliction, dominated by persistent unwanted thoughts, mental images, or urges).


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