Hungary's public arraignment of its 20th-century crimes marks it out from the rest of Europe. But remembering the past can be divisiveby Dan Hancox / October 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
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…