With Europe it is always hard to decide where to begin, but let’s begin with this: a hundred and fifty years ago, the continent’s largest prison used to sit in what is now Budapest’s Liberty Square. Later, the Hungarian stock exchange stood there. Following the Second World War, when Hungary became part of the Eastern Bloc, the stock exchange was replaced by the most important institution of the Soviet state: its television. Hungarian state television was chased out of Liberty Square by the Revolution of 1989. There were plans to create a five-star hotel in the magnificent neoclassical building, but the limping economy of the nineties and aughts rendered that untenable, and so the building stands empty. In front of it is what Istvan Rev, a historian at Central European University, who took me on a guided tour of the city, called “God’s zoo” of monuments.
One of the oldest is a monument to the fallen heroes of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Many of them were interned and some were executed in the prison that stood here. The name of the square, given when the prison was razed, in the late 19th century, pays homage to their fight against the Austrian Empire. But subsequent history gets complicated. From what or from whom did Hungary desire or acquire the freedom the square celebrates?
All post-Soviet states have had to invent their historical narratives anew in the last quarter century, but Hungary has faced a more vexing problem than most. A country like Poland or Estonia can claim to have been occupied, by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in turn, before winning back its freedom. Although that story might gloss over some complications, it basically corresponds to the facts. Hungary, on the other hand, was Nazi Germany’s willing ally in peace and in war, and this makes the story of the Second World War and its aftermath harder to tell.
The current nationalist government has chosen to focus on the six months when Hungary was actually occupied by Nazi Germany: from March, 1944, when Germany, fearing that Hungary would strike a separate peace with the Allied Powers, took over its former friend, until September of that year, when the Soviet Union pushed the Germans out. As they did in most of the European countries they occupied, the Soviets then put up a monument to themselves: the memorial to the Soviet liberation of Hungary sits at the north end of Liberty Square to this day. Constructed in 1945, it is a rather bland stone composition whose centerpiece is a sixteen-foot obelisk with a bronze battle scene near its base. Some post-Soviet countries have dismantled or radically altered these “liberation” monuments in the last twenty-five years, but Budapest kept its, in the face of constant opposition. The Soviet-liberation monument was defaced so often that a fence had to be erected to keep vandals away.
Last year, though, the focus of anger shifted from the Soviet monument to a new structure at the south end of the square: a monument to the victims of the German occupation of Hungary. The monument is hard to take in: a German Imperial Eagle—which is distinct from the eagle used as a Nazi symbol, and which still graces the German coat of arms—about to sink its claws into the flesh of the Archangel Gabriel, who symbolizes the innocent victim that was Hungary.
The monument, the plan for which was approved in a closed cabinet session on New Year’s Eve, 2013, is interpreted by its critics, at best, as an attempt to gloss over Hungary’s complicity in the tragedy of the Second World War and, at worst, as a monument to the occupation itself. A makeshift counter-monument has taken up residence in front of the eagle: a row of small handmade displays that include photographs, personal items such as shoes and clothing, and printouts with private stories and public denouncements of the monument. Every evening at six o’clock, a couple dozen or so people come and set up folding chairs there and commence a conversation about what they believe really happened in Hungary in the 1940s. They talk about the six hundred thousand civilians believed to have perished in Hungary, of whom four hundred and fifty thousand were Jews and another thirty thousand or so were Roma. And they note that other Hungarian citizens carried out the Nazi policies that led to these deaths. They also talk about Miklós Horthy, who ran the country from 1920 to 1944, finishing out his reign as the head of a pro-Nazi government. As it happens, a monument to Horthy stands on the steps of a church just off Liberty Square, and he is protected by a fence.
Now that the new occupation monument has become the subject of so much anger and controversy, the old Soviet-liberation monument has become irrelevant. The fence around it has been removed, for it is no longer necessary to keep away the vandals. “Once the new monument was erected, this old monument transubstantiated into a monument to the Soviet occupation,” Rev said, laughing.
Budapest has some experience with monuments transubstaniating. Take, for example, Tatiana with the Fish, as the city’s most visible monument is known. According to legend, the giant stone woman was originally commissioned by Horthy as a memorial to his son Istvan, a military pilot who died fighting the Soviets. When the Soviets took Budapest a few years later, the story goes, they found the monument and decided to repurpose it. Rather than a gun, the woman was given a palm leaf to hold, and then she was placed at the top of a tall hill on the western, Buda side of the Danube river. From a distance, Budapest residents observed, the woman, who was now Russian and therefore dubbed Tatiana, looked like she was holding a giant fish. After the Revolution of 1989, the monument remained standing, largely unchanged, though it was renamed, sort of: its official name changed from Liberation to Liberty.
Not only has Hungary had to redefine what its liberty is, it also has had to choose who did the liberating. If it was not the Soviets but from the Soviets, well, then, obviously, the savior has to be Ronald Reagan. His bronze likeness, a bit larger than life-size, stands in Liberty Square, just behind the old Soviet-liberation monument. In a way, Reagan brackets the square: all the way on the other side, in front of the new Nazi-occupation monument, hangs a handmade sign: “Mr. Orban, tear down this monument!” Orban is the last name of the current Hungarian premier, and the rest is an allusion to the demand Reagan addressed to Soviet President Gorbachev when he spoke in Berlin, in 1987. Whether one approaches Liberty Square from the Soviet side or the Nazi side, Ronald Reagan would appear to be the real liberator.
The Reagan monument stands fairly close to the U.S. embassy, which has been in this square through many regimes. Its liberty record has been consistent, if not always heroic. For fifteen years following Hungary’s failed anti-Soviet uprising, in 1956, the embassy harbored the country’s archbishop, József Mindszenty, who had sought refuge there during the crackdown; the Americans failed to smuggle him to liberty. But the embassy advertises a different chapter of its history: in front of its heavily secured entrance it has placed a small monument to Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who is credited with saving sixty-two thousand Hungarian Jews, through the granting of diplomatic papers and the creation of safe houses protected by the Swiss government; he worked out of the U.S. embassy.
There is at least one other monument to Lutz in Budapest, in the old Jewish quarter. There are at least two more memorials to the non-Jewish saviors of the Jews, and one monument to the Hungarian Jewish victims of Nazism, a metal weeping willow placed in the courtyard of the Great Synagogue—the largest synagogue in Europe, and one of the city’s top tourist attractions—behind a fence.
Back in Liberty Square, the monuments go on. The next one, standing in front of the National Bank building on the east side of the square, honors Harry Hill Bandholtz, an American brigadier general who served in the Philippines and France, among other places, before being posted to Hungary following the First World War. He is said to have overseen the disarmament of the Hungarian army and to have dispersed a Romanian uprising with his riding whip alone. The statue features the whip but no reference to Romanians, Hungarians, or any other nation besides the Americans. “I simply carried out the instructions of my government, as I understood them, as an officer and a gentleman of the United States Army,” says the inscription.
The monument, originally unveiled in 1936, was, it is said, damaged during the Second World War, then kept in storage, and ultimately parked in the U.S. ambassador’s courtyard. Only on the eve of President George Bush’s first visit to Hungary was the monument taken out from behind the fence and placed in the square. That was in July, 1989. Two months later, a negotiated agreement between representatives of the Communist Party and several opposition movements essentially ended Communist rule in Hungary—and began the process of creating the latest version of its national story.
[“source – newyorker.com”]