HUNGARY'S BATTLE FOR MEMORY.
THE PEST SIDE of the river Danube that slices through Budapest is dominated by one of the largest parliament buildings in the world. Designed to govern an empire and completed in 1902, only sixteen years before the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed, this outsized, neo-Gothic building, modelled on Westminster, tells us more about the aspirations than the reality of Hungary's troubled history. Four statues dotted around the parliament building give us a truer picture of Hungary's past.
At the southern end of parliament stands a statue of Ferenc Rakoczi, the Transylvanian prince who fought for Hungary's independence against the Habsburgs before being driven into exile in 1711. Opposite Rakoczi, on the north side, is a statue of Lajos Kossuth, who led Hungary to independence for six months before he was forced into exile in 1849. Also on the north side of Parliament is a statue of Mihaly Karolyi, the first president of independent Hungary for five months before he was driven into exile in 1919. Finally, across the square in front of parliament, is a statue of Imre Nagy, the prime minister of Hungary for ten days during the revolution of 1956, who was executed two years later.
These statues, rather than the grandiose parliament building, point to Hungary's dark history. Since 1848 Hungary has experienced two failed revolutions, fought on the losing side in two world wars, suffered the loss of over half its territory and endured three foreign invasions and occupations. The German word for monument is denkmal, which means `think again'. In a history full of defeat and disaster the urge to `think again' is more a necessity than a luxury, for in expressing symbolically the `might have beens' of history, such as freedom and independence, monuments in Hungary have done much to form the country's historic memory and national identity. But these monuments have also been used to manipulate the public memory for political purposes.
On March 15th, 1848, a group of radical students, including Hungary's greatest poet, Sandor Petofi, proclaimed a Twelve Point programme in the cafe Pilvax in Pest, thus sparking off the Hungarian revolution. This was a moment in Hungarian history comparable to the 1789 Revolution for France, and it would later assume enormous symbolic importance in its public memory. The demonstration of March 15th, 1848, became so firmly lodged in Hungary's public memory that it was symbolically re-enacted in the country's two great twentieth-century struggles for freedom -- 1956 and 1989. Yet 1848 bequeathed a divided legacy because it was not only a liberal revolution, but a nationalist one. Under the leadership of Lajos Kossuth, Hungary demanded liberal social reforms such as freedom of the press and emancipation of the serfs. She also appealed to the conscience of liberal Europe for her national rights against Habsburg domination. But the Magyars formed only forty per cent of the population of the land under the Hungarian Crown, and they denied national rights to the non-Magyar peoples, especially the Romanians, Serbs and Croats, who were claiming these rights for themselves. In the war of independence that followed the 1848 revolution, Hungary fought against two of Europe's most despotic regimes -- the Habsburg and Romanov empires - eventually losing to the Tsarist army at Vilagos in August 1849. For a short, glorious, historical moment, however, Hungary gained the attention of the world (as it was to do a hundred years later in 1956) in its struggle against the odds for national freedom and liberal reforms. It would not be the last time that a Russian army decided the fate of Hungary for a couple of generations.
Even though the 1848 revolution failed, perhaps because it failed, it soon began to acquire a symbolic importance in Hungary's civic consciousness. 1848 came to assume mythological proportions for later generations and was used by different political camps to legitimise their own programmes. At least three strands of the myth can be identified. First, the myth of national independence (which entailed suppression of the non-Magyar national minorities) was used by right-wing leaders in the 1920s and 30s to support their aim of restoring Hungary's historic borders. Second, the myth of radical social reform (especially the emancipation of the peasants), which the post-1956 Communist regime under Janos Kadar used to legitimise its own programme of socialism. Third, the myth of liberal reforms (notably freedom of the press), which the anti-Communist dissidents of the 1980s drew on in their struggle to topple the Communist regime. In the battle for memory which was waged with great intensity in twentieth-century Hungary, each of these camps sought to appropriate 1848 for their own purposes,
Three heroes of 1848 who have been commemorated by memorials in Budapest are Lajos Kossuth himself, General Joseph Bem and Lajos Batthyany. It suited the conservative regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy, which sought to revise the 1920 Treaty of Trianon in the 1920s and 30s, to exploit the nationalist aspects of 1848. Kossuth, the `Moses of the Magyars', led the nation to independence in 1849, but was forced into exile after Russia defeated Hungary in the same year. After his death in Turin in 1894 the Habsburg authorities allowed Kossuth's body to be brought back for a ceremonial reburial. In 1927 a statue of Kossuth, surrounded by his aristocratic ministers of 1848, was erected in front of parliament, a forerunner of the one we see there today.
Another hero of the Hungarian war of independence in 1848-49 was General Joseph Bem, a leader of the Polish revolutionary movement, who cleared Transylvania of all foreign troops within three months, thus temporarily staving off the eventual defeat. Thereafter, he fled to Turkey. The statue of Bem, erected in Buda in 1934, later became a meeting place for demonstrators in 1956 to show their sympathy with the anti-Soviet movements in Poland at the time.
The Austrians supplied Hungary with many martyrs by the savage reprisals they took against the rebels in October 1849. The notorious Austrian field marshal, Haynau, ordered the execution of thirteen Hungarian generals in Arad, as well as independent Hungary's first prime minister, Lajos Batthyany, in Pest. Batthyany was ceremonially reburied twenty-one years later and in 1926 an eternal flame memorial was built on the spot where he had been executed. This was to become the scene of demonstrations against both Habsburg rule before 1918 and Soviet rule after 1956.
Hungary emerged devastated from the First World War. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918 and Hungary was compelled to sign the Treaty of Trianon by which she lost two-thirds of her historic territory, one-third of her Magyar population and two-thirds of her total population. It was the greatest blow suffered by Hungary since her defeat by the Turks in 1526. Every sector of society and every party rejected the treaty. Signs declaring `No! No! Never!' (Nem, Nem, Soha) and, symbolically, four black pieces of Greater Hungary grouped around the white body of a truncated motherland were displayed in public places throughout the 1920s and 30s.
The dismemberment of Hungary was complete even before the Treaty of Trianon. The first president of the new republic, Mihaly Karolyi, hoped to save Hungary by making concessions to the non-Hungarian nationalities (Romanians, Czechoslovaks and South Slavs), but his plans were scuppered by French and British support for Hungary's neighbours abroad and by Communist opposition at home. His term of office lasted only five months until March 1919. Later he went into exile and led the anti-fascist Movement for a Democratic Hungary in Britain from 1943. Karolyi was the second leader, after Kossuth, of an independent Hungary. It served the purposes of the Kadar regime to erect a statue in 1975 to a Hungarian nationalist who, though an aristocrat, was a genuine land reformer (he gave away all his estates) and anti-fascist. Karolyi's brief term of office was to be Hungary's last experiment in liberal politics until 1989. Native forms of fascism and Communism sprang up in Hungary's deformed political culture long before such ideologies were imposed on her from without by Nazi Germany (1944) and the Soviet Union (1948) respectively.
Bela Kun's 133-day experiment in Bolshevism in 1919, the first outside the Soviet Union, left a deep and bitter scar on the nation. In the hysterical atmosphere of the time popular opinion believed that Bela Kun's Soviet Republic was a Jewish conspiracy -- (Kun and other leading communists were Jewish) -- out to destroy the nation.
Bela Kun's Red Terror was succeeded by the much more extensive White Terror of Admiral Miklos Horthy, whose counter-revolutionary regime lasted from 1920 to 1944. During the. Horthy era two issues dominated Hungarian politics -- revision of Trianon and the Jewish question. After the major national minorities were absorbed into other states and Hungary was left as an ethnically homogeneous entity, the Jews became the scapegoats for all the nation's political ills. A number of anti-Jewish laws were passed, culminating in the law of 1941 incorporating the major provisions of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. By the late 1930s Hungary's leaders realised that only by co-operation or even alliance with the fascist powers -- Germany and Italy -- could Hungary hope to recover her lost territory.
In their desire to recover `Greater Hungary' the counter-revolutionary national leaders of the 1920s and 30s laid claim to the 1848 martyrs (Kossuth, Bem and Batthyany) in the spirit of nationalism, not democracy. The great Hungarian political thinker of the twentieth century, Istvan Bibo, writing in 1946, castigated Hungary's interwar leaders for following a `territory-centric' view of national strength. But this view was inherent in the 1848 interpretation of national independence. When Hungary set out to win its independence from Habsburg rule in 1848 she found herself opposed by Croats, Serbs and Romanians, who demanded their own national rights. The Horthy regime chose the nationalist path of revisionism which led first to alliance with Nazi Germany and finally German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. By allying with Germany and losing the war, Hungary got herself locked into a deadly embrace with the Soviet Union which lasted until 1989. Horthy's foreign policy brought inestimable ruin to Hungary. Although he was ceremonially reburied in 1993 by a small group of sympathisers, the attempt to present him as an early anti-Bolshevik statesman has so far not met with much response in Hungary.
Apart from the 200,000 Hungarian soldiers who lost their lives in the fruitless struggle against the Soviet Union, the main casualties of the Second World War in Hungary were the Jews. The Final Solution in Hungary was carried out with a speed and brutality hardly matched elsewhere. About 435,000 Jews were deported from Hungary between May and November 1944, with only perhaps 120,000 surviving. This is one of greatest tragedies in Hungarian history; yet after 1945 the Hungarians failed to come to grips with the Holocaust, a fact reflected in the absence of any major memorials to it. Budapest was the residence of Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw the deportations. It was also the residence of Raoul Wallenberg, third secretary of the Swedish legation, who risked being shot as he worked to save over 20,000 Jews by issuing them with Swedish passports. Wallenberg later disappeared into the Soviet gulag, so it is hardly surprising that the Communists did not wish to commemorate his life. It was not until the late 1980s that a memorial was erected to Wallenberg and this was commissioned by the American ambassador, Nicholas M. Salgo.
The Second World War ended for Hungary on April 4th, 1945, when the Red Army cleared the country of German troops. The price Hungary paid for being rid of the Nazis was occupation of another kind by the Soviet Union for the next forty-five years. Hungary's ambiguity over this exchange of masters is reflected in the history of the Liberation Monument on Gellert Hill, which dominates Budapest. Originally commissioned by Marshal Voroshilov, the Soviet commander who liberated the capital, it consisted of a flag-bearing Soviet soldier in front of an obelisk topped by a woman holding a palm leaf. The statue of the soldier was toppled during the-1956 uprising, but in 1958 an identical version was put in its place. After 1989 an open debate broke out over whether the Soviet defeat of the Germans was a liberation or an occupation. The Budapest city council reached a compromise by removing the Soviet soldier but leaving the woman's statue, which still stands.
In January 1989 the Hungarian Communist Minister of State, Imre Pozsgay, dropped a bombshell during the radio programme `168 Hours' by adding the word `people' (nep) to `uprising' to describe the failed revolution of 1956. The Communists had previously called it a `counter-revolution'. Now by allowing it to be called a `people's revolution' they were granting to the people outside the party a claim to be the true inheritors of Hungary's political authority. Here was a debate about historic memory which touched on the very authority and legitimacy of the party in power. For decades after the revolution of 1956 the government and people tacitly agreed to what Janos Kis has called a `pact of forgetting'. Dissident groups now called for a revaluation of 1956. A compromise was reached within the party in February 1989 by calling the events of 1956 a `popular uprising' which ended as a `counter-revolution'. The Pozsgay affair illustrates how history was used as a weapon in a reformist minister's struggle to achieve a multi-party system. The anti-reform Communists were as haunted by history and memory as much as anyone else, knowing that they could not acknowledge 1956 as a `people's' revolution without destroying themselves in the process.
A few weeks later came the second event in the struggle over Hungary's historic memory: the demonstration of March 15th, 1989. One hundred thousand people turned out to demand that March 15th and October 23rd replace April 4th and November 7th as national holidays. The Soviet army had liberated Hungary on April 4th, 1945, and November 7th was the anniversary of the Soviet Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. In reclaiming these two dates the opposition was invoking the two historic mythologies of 1848 and 1956. But what they were reclaiming was the year 1848 as the source of Hungary's liberal democratic values, not as legitimising a nationalist quest for lost borders, as the Horthy regime had done.
More daring was the opposition's attempt to reclaim October 23rd -- the first day of the 1956 uprising -- as a national holiday. Indeed, the opposition organised a march to six historic sites, where public commemorations and protests had been banned for decades, in order to reenact the events of 1848 and 1956, relating them to the political situation in March 1989. One of the sites was Freedom Square in front of the headquarters of Hungarian TV: here a banner calling for `Free Hungarian Television', linked it to the demands for `Free Radio Budapest' in 1956 and freedom of the press in 1848. Another site on the march was the Batthyany memorial where the crowd linked Imre Nagy's fate in 1958 to that of Batthyany in 1849 -- both leaders had been betrayed by the vengeful authorities who succeeded them.
The government's failure to respond to the demonstration of March 15th, 1989, only spurred on i the growing anti-government forces to further dissent. The decades-long suppression of the memory of 1956 was coming into the open. It was a painful process for many people who had accepted the Kadar compromise to be faced with a new version of Hungary's recent past. At the heart of the process lay the rehabilitation of the leader of the 1956 revolution, Imre Nagy, who had been buried in an unmarked grave following his execution in 1958.
So the third milestone in the battle for Hungary's historic memory in 1989 was the ceremonial reburial of Nagy which was held in Heroes' Square before a crowd of 200,000 on 16th June, 1989. Placed alongside the coffin of Nagy were those of his four closest associates and a sixth coffin symbolising the unknown fighter of 1956. For the Communist Party to commemorate the freedom fighters of 1956 spelled the end of their own legitimacy and power. One of the speakers -- Viktor Orban, leader of the Alliance of Young Democrats and the present prime minister of Hungary -- declared:
We do not understand that the very same party and government leaders who told us to learn from books falsifying the history of the revolution, now vie with each other to touch these coffins as if they were lucky charms.
The actual reburial of Nagy took place in Plot 301 in a cemetery on the outskirts of Budapest where thousands of other 1956 fighters had been secretly buried in unmarked graves after the uprising was brutally crushed. The plot was landscaped and transformed by the erection of traditional Hungarian wooden grave posts and it has since become a place of pilgrimage. Nagy's reburial marked the political death of his supplanter, Janos Kadar. The fact that Kadar actually died three weeks later on the very day that the Hungarian Supreme Court proclaimed Nagy's full legal rehabilitation was a pure -- if symbolic -- coincidence. On October 7th 1989, a Law on the Memory of the Revolution declared the events of 1956 to be a `revolution' and a `struggle for freedom': the very words used to describe Hungary's resistance to the Habsburg and Tsarist armies in 1848-49.
The statement made by Viktor Orban at Nagy's reburial points to the difficulty non-Hungarians have in understanding the `revolution' of 1989. In fact it was not a revolution in the conventional sense of the term, but a `negotiated' takeover of power. This predisposition among Hungary's political elite to resolve conflicts peacefully is deeply rooted in her survivalist culture. Indeed, for a small country often on the knife-edge of extinction, this behaviour became a necessity. Stretching back to the time when Hungary negotiated with the victorious Turks over Transylvania (after the battle of Mohacs, 1526), to the Pragmatic Sanction of 1722, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, and finally to the concessions made by the elite in their co-operative pact with the Kadar regime after 1968, a tradition of compromise has characterised Hungary's political culture. In this context the spontaneous, violent revolution of 1956 which bubbled up from below is unique in modern Hungarian history. And for this reason the Kadar government felt compelled to suppress not only the revolution, but the memory of it as well.
After 1989, Hungary's new leaders had choices to make about how to deal with the historic memory of the Communist period. Budapest was still full of statues and memorials proclaiming the ideological message of the Soviet period. An ingenious solution was found in 1991 when the Budapest Assembly decided to build a Statue Park on the outskirts of Budapest to accommodate the main monuments. Statues of the founding fathers of Communism, Lenin, Marx and Engels, stand on each side of the entrance, while inside the park there are forty statues and plaques of the entire pantheon of leading Hungarian Communists from Bela Kun to the present. Statue Park, which opened in 1993, sits starkly in its suburb, neither exalting nor denigrating the discarded memorials it contains. The architect, who designed it, Akos Eleod, was careful not to construct an anti-propaganda park, or a joke park from the propagandist statues. As he said, `This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy.'
Statue Park represents a clear break from Hungary's earlier `pacts of forgetting'. Perhaps it has been possible for Hungary to view her recent past in this open democratic way for the first time because she does not have to obey the wishes of a foreign power, and she is no longer obsessed with restoring her old borders. In the battle for Hungary's historic memory the liberal democratic interpretation of 1848 seems to have triumphed over the nationalistic one.
From 1848 to 1989 a highly selective historical memory was at work in Hungary. Some memory strands in the historical pattern were remembered, others forgotten. There are no public monuments in Budapest, for example, to most of the leaders who have actually ruled Hungary during the past 150 years: Franz Joseph, Habsburg Emperor of Austria-Hungary, 1848-1916; Admiral Horthy, Regent of Hungary, 1920-44; Mattyas Rakosi, General Secretary of the Communist Party, 1945-56; and Janos Kadar, General Secretary of the Communist Party, 1956-88. By contrast,, as we have seen, the four statues of Hungarian leaders around parliament had a combined period of rule totalling less than one year! In a country with such a contested past we see in its public monuments a pattern in Hungarian history of the fallen hero whose defeat is only provisional and who comes to be honoured by posterity, though often for radically different reasons.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Istvan Bibo, Democracy, Revolution, Self-Determination, ed. K. Nagy (Atlantic Research and Publications, 1991); Istvan Deak, Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians, 1848-49 (Columbia University Press, 1979); Andras Gero, Modem Hungarian Society in the Making (Central European University Press, 1993); Gyorgy Litvan (ed.), The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt and Repression, 1953-1963 (Longman, 1997); Peter F. Sugar (ed.), A History of Hungary (Indiana University Press, 1990); Rudolf F. Tokes, Hungary's Negotiated Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
John W. Mason is the author of The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1867-1918 (Longman, 1996). o had been m