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Hungary’s house of terror

Hungary's public arraignment of its 20th-century crimes marks it out from the rest of Europe. But remembering the past can be divisive

By Dan Hancox   November 2009

ABOVE: outside the House of Terror, plaques on the wall commemorate those killed for taking part in the uprising against the Communist regime

After communism came the vile capitalism,” Gabriel, my guide on a communist walking tour of Budapest, said. Vile? “Oh, it’s just an expression” he told me. “But for millions of Hungarians it has not been a good 20 years, most of us don’t feel like celebrating.” Friday, 23rd October marked two decades of Hungarian independence from Soviet rule, and was also the anniversary of the 1956 revolution. And even if Gabriel was reluctant to reminisce (“I just want it to be passed”), the country’s public life is strikingly forward about looking backwards.

Hungary’s public arraignment of its 20th-century crimes—a trial put on for tourists, as much as citizens—marks it out from most of Europe. Measured by the number of museums, Spain seems largely in denial that it had a civil war, let alone 36 years of Franco, and Britain’s accounting of its empire is still woefully inadequate. In Hungary, however, the willingness to acknowledge the recent past is nowhere more evident than in Memento Park, a home for dead statues and an epic artistic achievement. Most former Soviet bloc countries demolished their communist relics or let them rot. In 1993, the Hungarian government decided to put their totems to Marx, Engels, Lenin and friends on display on the outskirts of Budapest. They loom noiselessly amid dusty scrubland, disconnected from the people over whom they once held sway. If you’ve ever wondered what a socialist realist Disneyland would be like, this is the quickest way of finding out.

“This park is about dictatorship,” architect Ákos Eleod wrote about his design. “But as soon as [it] can be talked about, described and built, the park is already about democracy. Only democracy can provide the opportunity for us to think freely about dictatorship, or about democracy, come to that.” Its creators wished to avoid creating a “grotesque irony park,” and they succeeded—that is, if you ignore the T-shirts on sale depicting the fathers of communism as characters from South Park. But I doubt even the most sober of historians would begrudge: “Oh my God, they killed Trotsky!”

In contrast, there’s no macabre kitsch in the House of Terror, a museum devoted to state oppression. It is located in central Pest in a house with great symbolic resonance: 60 Andrássy Boulevard served as headquarters for both the quisling Nazi regime (the Hungarian Arrow Cross party), and the Soviet-backed Hungarian secret police. The grim, damp-stained basement prison cells witnessed the torture and murder of Hungarians of all political persuasions. The perpetrators, we are told, merely “changed clothes”: replacing fascist with communist uniforms.

Any sense of ostalgie that might be sparked by the House of Terror’s superb socialist realist paintings is extinguished by the vivid tales of arbitrary state violence and systematic oppression. The last room is devoted to shaming the “victimisers”: 200 or so people deemed responsible for the brutality, photos captioned with names and positions in the state apparatus. “The victimisers lives before or after do not acquit them from their individual responsibilities,” reads a bulletin by the door. All very well, but many of these people are still alive.

Reconciliation is still a long way off. “Monument Park is seen as very much a left-wing way of remembering, and the House of Terror a right-wing way of remembering,” János Hideg, a translator of history books, told me. “The left don’t like the equivalence that the House of Terror makes between the Nazis and the communist regime. You can see who’s behind each one from the way they present history.”

The framing of the past is a major political issue across the post-communist diaspora. Returning from Memento Park, I stumbled upon a group of people dressed in white shirts, black trousers, black waistcoats and—unmistakably–jackboots. They were milling around in front of a statue of Count Lajos Batthyány, the first Hungarian prime minister. After leading the failed Hungarian revolution, he was executed by the Austrians on 6th October 1849—160 years ago to the day that I was there.

Sidling up to them and finding an English speaker, I asked if they were a political group, “No, no—we are just a friendship group,” a thirtysomething skinhead with a ginger handlebar moustache kept telling me. “Friendship group, friendship group.” “So you’re not communists then?” I asked. “Ha! No. No, they are the communists!” he said, pointing to the nearby Hungarian parliament building.

It turned out this was a meet-up of the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian guard), the paramilitary wing of Jobbik, the “neo-fascist” political party. The red-and-white striped badges worn by the group were the colours of the Árpád dynasty of Hungarian kings; tellingly, the Arrow Cross party were also fond of this flag. Formed in 2007, the Gárda were banned in 2008, before being allowed to reform in July this year. Jobbik took three seats, and 15 per cent of the vote, in June’s European parliament elections.

Later that night, I returned to the statue, where a candelit vigil had begun for the execution of Count Batthyány and the 13 martyrs of Arad, the rebel generals who died with him. In attendance, along with the tattooed bikers and youths in combat trousers, were smartly-dressed middle classes. After the speeches, as the people dispersed, Árpád flags tucked under their arms, two young men gave out small slips of paper adorned with the names of those 14 icons of Hungarian nationalism. Though I probably should have stuck up for historical integrity, it didn’t seem prudent to mention that several of the martyrs came from Serbia, Germany, Armenia and Austria.

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