I had the opportunity to visit Budapest this year, a city remarkable for its beauty, certainly, as much as it is remarkable for the way it has not quite outlived its Soviet bloc aura. For every Hapsburg-era edifice there are trams that apparently have apparently been retained since the Cold War, products of the USSR that have not quite been modernized. Hungary obviously has moved beyond its past in many ways, it’s absorption in to the EU and NATO being one of them. Old ghosts refuse to wither into the afterlife of history in this city, and nowhere is this more true than when one visits the Terror Háza (“House of Terror”).
Andrassy Avenue is a lively artery that runs through the centre of Budapest. Walking along the boulevard, you get a picturesque indication of the city’s Austro-Hungarian legacy, every building looking like it was constructed in the belle epoque years before the First World War, where autocracy reigned supreme, certainly, but also where Old Europe’s elegance had not been marred by the hideousness of the twentieth century. It is a lovely, chic part of the city, even under leaden skies where the rain and unusual cold could easily sully would should otherwise be a beautiful early summer’s day. At the very least, it’s clear why Budapest has become increasingly more attractive for Western tourists.
The moment you reach 60 Andrássy út, you feel the presence of a considerably less ornate past. The House of Terror announces itself quite boldly – and literally – with the word “Terror” etched in a metal entablature that lines the top of the three storey building. The design was meant to make the building stand out; considering the boldness and frankly idiosyncratic design it is impossible to miss.
The House of Terror was designed specifically as a museum devoted to Hungary’s fascist and communist past. As the description on the museum’s website states: “Having survived two terror regimes, it was felt that the time had come for Hungary to erect a fitting memorial to the victims, and at the same time to present a picture of what life was like for Hungarians in those times.” Starting as the central headquarters for the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, it was converted at the end of World War II to serve as the HQ for the State Protection Authority (AVH) in 1945, the Hungarian equivalent of the Soviet NKVD.
Creating a museum in such proximity to the history with which it is dedicated to has its advantages, none the least being the palpable sense of sadness conveyed to the visitor simply by being there. You enter the museum the standard way, with a tickets being sold, a mandatory coat check, and brochures being handed to you. The ground floor (the only floor where pictures are allowed) directs you toward a replica of a Soviet tank. Rather than start at the first floor, however, visitors are directed to the second floor for reasons that become clear once the exhibits end.
The exhibit starts off with a briefing of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party. Controversy apparently arose from this segment of the museum when it first opened, not because of anything intrinsic to the presentation, but for the sheer brevity the museum devoted to this era in favor of a concerted emphasis on the wrongs committed by the USSR and Hungarian Communist Party. While some of this criticism may be misplaced – Communist rule far outlasted the Arrow Cross Party’s reign – one gets the impression that the museum could have benefited from an clearer presentation of the Party’s role in Holocaust. That degree of introspective self-reflection on the fate of Hungary’s vibrant Jewish population would have given more substance and context to that portion of the museum.
The House does make it clear, however, that the transition from fascism to Stalinism was shockingly seamless. In a segment entitled simply “Changing Clothes”, you literally see an Arrow Cross uniform standing back-to-back on a revolving platform with that of a Soviet commissar, making it clear how Arrow Cross members opportunistically changed loyalties to the opposite end of the political spectrum as the Soviets fought westward.
Much of the rest of the museum consists of tableaus representing daily life under Soviet occupation and during the reign of the Hungarian Working People’s Party (MDP) and the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party (MSzMP). The “Gulag” exhibit was particularly stark, being composed of multiple monitors designed to randomly turn on and display first-hand, black and white interviews of Hungarian gulag survivors narrating the multiple horrors they had had to endure: beatings, gang rapes, beheadings, and temperatures cold enough to cause prisoner’s teeth to break at the gumline.
The other empty offices of secret policeman long since retired and (presumably) passed away were less interactive, but certainly vivid enough of paint a general picture of the totalitarian control Communist authorities had over every aspect of daily Hungarian life, a world of rigged elections, dismantled religious institutions, show trials, unending quotas for the Hungarian peasantry, and the ubiquitous and well-founded fear of constant surveillance by state security and fellow citizens alike.
While I found them intrinsically interesting, I have to confess, I found these exhibits prosaic and ordinary, like an encyclopedia come to life, albeit with impressive and impassioned detail. The cold, pedantic impression the first and second floors gave me turned into something more visceral, more palpable at the very end of the trail. From the first floor, one is led by guides to the elevator. There isn’t much preparation for what is supposed to be seen or experienced; rather, you simply enter the lift, wait for it to descend, and listen to the voice emanating from the monitor behind you. The voice is of an interviewee, a guard apparently, calmly describing the process with which prisoners were executed by the AVH. Prisoners marked for death were hanged – or to be more accurate to the actual method, garroted – on short, low gibbets. Rather than the long-drop method of hanging seen in public executions in the West, the prisoners were hooded and led up a short, two-step stool. The moment the noose was placed around their neck, the stool was kicked away, while a guard pulled on the drop on the other side of the gibbet. Often, another guard pulled on the body to make the decrease the time needed to strangle the prisoner. I recall the guard mentioning the average time for death was twenty minutes.
This method was meant to be expedient and efficient, although I couldn’t help thinking the description seemed less like a professional execution (brutal in itself) and more a crude murder carried by amateur, inexperienced gangsters. When one steps out of the elevator, that sense of crass death and meaningless cruelty is made all too apparent as one is guided towards the basement of 60 Andrássy út, in what is essentially a dungeon. I say “is” rather than “was” deliberately. The basement cells – where enemies of the state were interrogated, starved, beaten, made to experience unbearable cold and sleeplessness, constant light or constant dark (depending on the whims of captors) – are reconstructions (according to the website). The sense of artificiality, however, that accompanies any contrived reconstruction of historical artifacts is nauseatingly absent. As I walked and saw each cramped cell, with the paint partially peeled, the few metal objects within rusted and decayed, and displays of various straps and studded truncheons used for the constant beating-sessions, I felt the distance between my present and the sadism of the past I was meant to experience cut in half. Not considering myself particularly sensitive to these things, I can say with all sincerity that the basement of the House of Terror accomplished its educational goal by immersing museum patrons in an environment that I found completely repugnant.
I have to say, however, than in retrospect this repugnance was valuable. The museum ends with several tributes to the 1956 Revolution. These tributes, coming straight after the palpably disquieting experience of the holding cells, seemed poignant in its depiction of sacrifice in the face of an immense odds (the Soviet invasion killed thousands) and was thus satisfyingly free of triumphalism one would normally expect in museums of a similar nature. As sad and moving as this section was, the very last exhibit changed my entire perspective of the House of Terror. Coming right before the official end of the exhibition, below the staircase leading to the museum’s exit, is the “Gallery of Victimizers”. It is a simple title for a simple presentation, a gallery of official photos of:
Perpetrators are all those, who took an active part in establishing and maintaining the two Hungarian totalitarian terror regimes (Arrow Cross and communist), as well as those, who held responsible positions in the executive organs of these two regimes. The majority of these people served or held responsible positions in organizations where crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed, acts which were incompatible even with their own legal systems. The perpetrators either took part in such crimes, or gave orders for their implementation, or sanctioned such decisions, or supported them as instigators.
Aside from the names and titles beneath each photo are dates of birth and death. The fact that many of the names of these perpetrators were of people still alive to date struck me as slightly chilling, as if it making clear to visitors the tragedy that so many collaborators of such a destructive system were still alive and free. It was with that thought that I was left with after I left. Rather than being just a well-designed museum or a historical artifact, the House of Terror was emblematic of one central impression I had of Budapest: at a spiritual level, it has not absolved itself of its past. That any city or country would be haunted by its past is a bit of a trite cliché, it is one that I cannot change or alter or express any differently. Unlike Prague, another city I visited at the same time that suffered behind the Iron Curtain after a brutal experience under fascist rule, it struck me as a city more willing to forget than Budapest.
As I left Hungary, I thought more of its recent past, wondering if its present generation of my age thought of the last half of the twentieth century with the same intensity and bitterness as so many members of the generation before. The obvious answer is quite probably no, although I would have to have spent more time in the country to gauge that fully. I am certain, even as a foreigner, that amongst those who spent their entire lives during that time, there are thousands of Hungarians who cannot forget that time, as they lived under a system where forgetfulness (like absolution or forgiveness) was made to be out of the question.