Though a generation has come of age since the Iron Curtain parted in 1989 in Hungary, reminders of the regime are relatively easy to find. It wasn’t so long ago that Budapest was ruled with an iron fist by the Soviets. I wanted to learn more about this chapter in their recent past so I took a “Soviet” tour of the city. It began in something called Szobor (Statue) Park on the edges of the city.
This purposely barren-looking bleak park was created as a ‘final resting place’ for the huge ominous communist-era statues that had dotted the city-scape from the end of WWII to the early 1990s. Some of the statues had been mostly destroyed by the people during the final days of communism—and, as if meant to be, …all that’s left of Lenin are a pair of huge boots. I guess they were made for walking… so to speak.
But the most moving and somewhat disturbing display had to be one of the most powerful museums I have ever been to, the House of Terror.
From the moment you enter its imposing entry hall and hear the eerie music, you know you are in for something different. Once headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi Party and immediately following it the Communist State Security Police, it’s now a modern, stylish, high-tech museum that uses amazingly creative, well thought out displays (including an eerie Nazi board room, a re-created “interrogation” room complete with old ‘reel to reel’ recording machines, a room on life in the Gulag, a maze of rubber ‘pork fat bricks’ reminding old timers of the harsh conditions of the 1950s, a memorial room called the “Hall of Tears” with hundreds of backlit victims’ names on the walls and dozens of tiny lights on stakes in a ‘field’ across the floor), and videotaped interviews with victims to illustrate the grim decades of Nazi and Communist repression.
After allying themselves with Hitler to save their own skins, Hungary was overtaken by the Nazi-affiliated Arrow Cross Party in the waning days of World War II. Their ideology was somewhat similar to Nazism – extreme nationalism, the promotion of agriculture, anti-capitalism, anti-Communism, and militant anti-Semitism. Arrow Cross members did their best to exterminate Budapest’s Jews, killing them one-by-one in the streets, and were known to tie several victims together, shoot one of them, and throw him into the freezing Danube — dragging the others in as well. They executed hundreds in the basement of the building I was in. During its short rule, 80,000 Jews, including many women, children and elderly were deported from Hungary to their deaths. After the war, Arrow Cross leaders were tried as war criminals by Hungarian courts.
When the communists moved into Hungary, they took over the same building as headquarters of their secret police (the ÁVO, later renamed ÁVH). To keep dissension to a minimum, the secret police terrorized, tried, deported, or executed anyone suspected of being an enemy of the state. Communism turned nearly everyone against each other and anyone who didn’t ‘applaud loud enough’ came under suspicion. Political prisoners were imprisoned in ÁVH-run concentration camps many of which were crude and cruel. Private property was abolished. Industry, education, financial and commercial services as well as culture were nationalized. Shortages became a common part of the bankrupt economy and shelves in the stores were consistently empty. The iron curtain descended, borders were closed. In some labor camps the unspoken goal was the eventual death of inmates due to overwork and maltreatment. In a number of cases, torture was an essential part of camp life and discipline.
The final section of the museum began with a video of a former guard explaining the execution process which plays while you descend in a purposely excruciatingly slow elevator into the prison basement where there are re-created eerie cramped prison cells and torture rooms.
The museum has had its share of criticism, mostly from activists that have argued that the museum portrays Hungary too much as the victim of foreign occupiers and does not recognize enough the contribution that Hungarians themselves made to the regimes in question. Critics have also criticized the fact that far more space is given to the terror of the communist regime than the fascist one. Answers to these critics generally revolve around the fact that, while the fascist Nazi regime lasted only few months, the Hungarian Communist regime lasted for forty years.