The darkening of the skies in Eastern Europe shows that the optimism of 1989 is long goneby Nick Cohen / November 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
The House of Terror in Budapest is one of the most carefully contrived museums I have visited. It uses music, props and video—all the modern curatorial tricks—to recreate the rule of the Nazis and Communists. In a final stunt, a lift inches tourists down to the gallows in the basement, as if guards were pushing our resisting bodies towards the hangman. The House of Terror is manipulative. But ignorant foreigners can console themselves with the thought that it is manipulating in a good cause.
The museum is in the old secret police headquarters on Andrássy, a grand fin de siècle boulevard that runs from the centre of Budapest to the magnificent Szechenyi baths. The Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazis, used it from October 1944 until March 1945, as it organised mass murder on an extraordinary scale. (Just under half of the Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarians.) Stalin’s armies invaded, and 60 Andrássy became the headquarters of the Hungarian Communist Party’s secret police—the place where opponents real and imagined came to suffer and die. The notion that what unites far-left and far-right is more important than what divides them, remains controversial. The record in Hungary shows they shared the same taste in torture chambers.
In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a cheerful consensus prevailed. After experiencing Fascism and Communism, Hungary and Europe had one option left. They could, indeed they must, embrace human rights, a free press, the protection of minorities, and the rule of law, and become “normal countries.” For that was a time when liberal democracy was thought to be “normal,” and dictatorships were condemned to live in museums.
That world is now upside down. The House of Terror shows how dictatorial movements can manipulate the horrors of the past to justify the oppression of the present—and not just in Hungary. The prime minister and de facto dictator, Viktor Orbán, prospers by rigging and corrupting the political system, media and business. Russia, Turkey and Venezuela follow suit. Meanwhile the conspiracy theories Orbán deploys thrive just as vigorously in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain as in crooked eastern European republics.
In February 2017, Mária Schmidt, the Director of the House of Terror, proved herself an exemplary 21st-century bureaucrat when word reached her that Orbán was preparing to move against Budapest’s Central European University. The threat to…