Monumental Struggles in Hungary

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After midnight on Saturday, July 19, dozens of workers with heavy machinery, protected by hundreds of special-unit police, installed the Monument to the German Occupation on Szabadság (Freedom) Square in central Budapest. The surprise nighttime action and heavy police presence was necessitated by widespread opposition to the monument, which commemorates Hungary’s occupation by Nazi forces 70 years ago, on March 19, 1944. Demonstrators, many of them descendants of Holocaust victims or survivors, or survivors themselves, had maintained an over 100-day presence at the site since construction began (after the foundations and the background and supporting columns were put in, the work had been at a standstill for weeks). The press speculated that the just-begun Israeli invasion of Gaza provided the necessary distraction for the government to pick this moment. The demonstrators argue that the memorial is part of the regime’s campaign to “falsify history” and absolve Hungarians of blame for the murder of over half a million Jews and thousands of Roma (‘gypsies’). Their counterpart, a “living monument,” has produced a line of personal mementoes and statements fronting the site, and a daily program of discussions on themes of history, memory, activism and democracy.

The plan to commission the monument was first announced on December 29; by January 17, the government had already decided on its erection and the form it would take: the Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary, being assaulted by a German imperial eagle. Public memorials treating issues of national significance usually go through years of design competitions, commission meetings, assessments by historians and public art experts, commentary in the media, and public debate (and, inevitably, controversy) before a final design is settled on—witness the just-completed Ground Zero memorial in Manhattan, the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington, DC, or the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. In this case, there was none of that: the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán simply imposed his will in a fait accompli. Faced with an explosion of outrage in the opposition and independent media, and in particular in Mazsihisz, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Hungary, Orbán postponed the unveiling date and promised to conduct a dialogue with the organization. But, two days after his Fidesz party won a second four-year term over a weak and divided opposition in the April 6 elections, work commenced, with no dialogue and no retreat.

The idea behind the monument is expressed in the preamble to the new Constitution pushed through by Fidesz almost immediately after taking power in 2010, specifying the March 1944 date as the beginning of Hungary’s “loss of sovereignty”—which, in its view, continued right through to the end of communist rule in 1989. Though Hungary had been a loyal ally of the Nazis since signing on to the Axis alliance in 1940, aristocratic-conservative ruler Regent Miklós Horthy’s attempts in early 1944 to switch to the clearly winning Allied side prompted Hitler to order the Wehrmacht in. The Germans forced Horthy to name a submissive prime minister and government. Less than two months later, the Nazi-ordered deportation to Auschwitz of Hungary’s provincial Jews began. This is the basis for the country’s depiction as an innocent angel subject to the ravages of an aggressive attacker, a conception that, in the eyes of critics, puts all responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust on the Germans.

It is true that the over 800,000 Jews in Hungary, including around 70,000 refugees from Poland, had until the occupation mostly been able to preserve their physical integrity, though deprived of their livelihoods and social standing by a series of anti-Jewish laws. But Hungary was responsible for several pogroms and massacres of Jews before 1944, including the late 1941 deportation of some 17,000 by Hungarian authorities over the border into German-occupied Ukraine, where they fell victim to the first mass killing of the Holocaust. And Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann set up his offices in Budapest in March with less than 200 compatriots from Berlin. The registration, ghettoization and transport of over 430,000 provincial Jews within a few weeks would have been impossible without the active cooperation of tens of thousands of Hungarian police and other officials—including midwives, who were employed to search women for fragments of the “national wealth” hidden in body cavities. This is not to mention the hundreds of thousands who benefited from the looting of the Jews’ property: apartments, furniture, even bedding and clothes. And Horthy himself was not removed from power, which is why he was able to halt the deportations at the borders of Budapest, after evidence of the deportees’ fate and pressure from foreign representatives became overwhelming. Eichmann was thrilled with the enthusiasm of Hungarian participation, who got rid of their Jews like “sour beer.”

In contrast to this reality of collaboration, agreed on by most serious historians, the memorial, dedicated to “all the victims of the German occupation,” treats Hungarian victims and perpetrators as one. The view of Hungary itself as a victim of its neighbors and history is one with long roots. The interwar Horthy regime made Freedom Square a centerpiece of its campaign against the post-World War I Trianon settlement, which gave two-thirds of the lands historically under Hungarian rule to the surrounding states, installing several monuments to ‘greater Hungary’ and the nation’s pain. This issue was the motivation for the alliance with the Nazis, the European power most likely to upend the status quo—and indeed, Hitler did force the return of large parts of the lost territory, though they were taken away again at the end of the war.

The monument is only one aspect of government attempts to shape history and public space. A number of other major squares—most notably, the one in front of the Parliament, formerly a site of regular protest but now tightly regulated and guarded—have been or are being reconstituted to their pre-World War II state, complete with statues of interwar politicians (including Horthy himself). Plans for a new Holocaust museum, the “House of Fates,” and the Veritas Historical Institute have also caused broad unease, with, again, independent historians and the Jewish community excluded from planning. Consequently, Mazsihisz broke off all cooperation with the government’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust this year, which designated 1944, typically misleadingly, as the “year of saving lives.” 30 US Congressmen and the US and German Embassies—since the eagle was not a specifically Nazi symbol, and still stands for Germany today—have protested the monument.

When I went to the site the day after the government’s action, around 200 protesters were venting their anger, some by throwing eggs, as dozens of police looked on. There were rumors that the dedication ceremony was about to take place; the government later announced that “it didn’t want to gloat,” thus there would be no public dedication. Gabor, a regular at the protests, told me how he heard the noise of the final construction (he lives nearby), and went out immediately to show his opposition: “only a dictatorship would do this; democracies don’t build such a monument, without discussion, using taxpayers’ money for historical lying.” Speakers pointed out the monument’s retrograde aesthetics and confused symbolism, as well as the mistakes in the Hebrew (which used a word denoting animal sacrifice instead of human victims), English and German inscriptions. Later, there was a circle discussion involving not only the demonstration organizers, but representatives of the far-right nationalist Jobbik party—who advocated that the government should rather put its effort into dismantling the 1946 memorial to the ‘heroic liberating Red Army’ at the other end of the square, in front of the US Embassy—and passersby with wide-ranging opinions about the monument and the historical issues. A history teacher remarked that this kind of open, public give-and-take, about concerns past and present, is exactly what Hungarian society (still) lacks. The Prime Minister’s forthright declaration on July 26 that he aims to build an “illiberal democracy” shows how much depends on such public debate and participation.

About Richard Esbenshade

22-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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