Unquiet Bodies

Thomas Laqueur

  • Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-Communism by István Rév
    Stanford, 340 pp, £19.95, January 2005, ISBN 0 8047 3644 8

I should say at the outset that I know István Rév; that I have walked with him through the cemeteries of Budapest and have seen in his company some of the graves he writes about. He is a remarkable man, the product of a culture and a time in which one either drowned or saved oneself through erudition, wit, irony and an unremitting conversation with history. I once told him that I envied the political exigency of his professional life; he replied that he envied me – this was pre 9/11 – for living in a society where one didn’t have to be on one’s guard every minute.

Rév’s learning is prodigious: his footnotes refer to books in at least seven languages and about everything from the calendrical practices of the ancient Near East to the architectural history of various subway systems and the theory of names as it developed from John Stuart Mill to Saul Kripke, with, by way of comparison, a solid account of necronym taboos among various tribes. Films, photographs and museum exhibits are everywhere used in evidence, as is an enormous range of recondite archival material.

As the founder and director of the Open Society Archive in Budapest, Rév is the guardian of great stores of the past century’s lies and half-truths, deceptions and self-deceptions, representations and re-representations of mass horror and private mendacity, at all levels from the highest councils of state to the lowliest policeman. With sober, biting but never ingenuous hopefulness, he wrings its truths from the dross of history. ‘Even in death,’ he writes, ‘the suspicion to which Communism gave birth – and this is becoming less and less obvious and more and more difficult to recognise – makes it difficult for anyone to analyse the history of the past century and to utter words that mean what they mean.’ It’s a difficulty that he overcomes as well as anyone can.

This is a beautifully written book. One can’t help feeling a certain envy that a native speaker of Hungarian, who has lived abroad only intermittently, should write in English with such narrative and poetic fluency: ‘The sight of the catafalque was a sure sign that 16 June 1989 was the dies illa, the last day of the past,’ he says of the reburial of Imre Nagy, the murdered head of the short-lived government that emerged from the 1956 uprising. The watching crowd ‘wanted to end a story, to dig the final graves in a country where the relatives of hundreds of thousands had no final graves … It turned out to be the adventus of a new regime … The martyrs were elevated, but it was the executioners who were revealed.’ The moment that signalled – or, more accurately, constituted – the end of Communism was lavishly staged by László Rajk Jr, the son of a leading victim of the 1949 Stalinist show trials, and himself a stage designer, who used props from the Budapest Opera’s production of Aida.

Rév will seduce even those readers who, inexplicably, are not interested in one of the strangest disappearing acts of all time: the disappearance of Communism in 1989-90. It came to so definitive an end – never again to be reborn or transformed into something living – that only the most ghostly signs of its having existed survive. Its demise brought oblivion: ‘There is neither the need nor the time to remember it, to face it, or to talk about it.’ It seems that there weren’t and never had been any perpetrators or cohabitors. No one now living in Eastern or Central Europe had anything to do with it. The Germans in 1945 – ‘those non-existent citizens of a non-existent country’ – would perhaps have liked to adopt this stance but, at least in the West, the victors allowed forgetfulness only up to a point: Auschwitz became too important to the remaking of a liberal consensus founded on the commitment that such a thing would never happen again. Perhaps more than fifty years of lost 20th-century history will somehow be found again; but, for now, the ‘non-existent subjects of a non-existent country’ – the Soviets whose Union has vanished – were responsible for what most people only dimly and perversely remember.

Finally, Rév is remarkable for his capacity somehow to reconcile his own history with the analytical detachment of a scholar of great brilliance. He has the sensibilities of someone deeply at home in the strange times he chronicles. He knew most of the protagonists of this book: his is a small country where murderers and victims lived side by side. His father was a senior official in post-1956 Hungary; as a boy he holidayed with the executioners of Nagy and other revolutionaries at Party resorts; his teachers were among those who wrote the official lies; his university office today is above the regime’s torture cells. He has a passionate engagement with the creation of liberal democracy in what he hopes is a new Hungary but fears is not.

This is, in other words, the work of an Eastern European Jewish intellectual struggling to find a future in a past strewn with lies, hypocrisy and evil. In its intricacy and luxuriousness of detail, its love of coincidence and connections and stories woven one into another, the book mirrors the claustrophobia of the lost Communist world. At the same time, it serves as a form of inoculation against thinking that Communism’s end was inevitable and that some truer and purer Hungarian – or Polish or any other – identity was waiting to be reborn. Teleological history is Rév’s real enemy.

By restoring history’s particularity and openness – the freedom and incoherence that we suffer and enjoy in our present – Rév wants to write himself, his countrymen and his readers both into a deeply compromised past and somehow out of it at the same time. This book is a chronicle of the way Rév and others have tried to fill a void between ‘the lost and the not yet comprehended’, to speak to a people who in 1989 ‘lost their future because they lost their past’, and are consequently in extreme political danger. This is history writing as existential struggle. It is about time travel: about going back to the future, ‘undoing by remaking’.

The title says as much, although Rév never quite comes clean on what he thinks of its ironical twist. (More on this later.) Retroactive justice, understood literally, is an oxymoron. A central tenet of liberal jurisprudence is that one can be punished only for what was a crime at the time it was committed. Retroactive justice is inherently injustice unless one can get outside time: either the act committed in the past was criminal, as judged by some timeless higher law (a proleptic sense of history will work equally well), or the wronged and the perpetrators need to become somehow our contemporaries. Retroactive justice then becomes simply justice: the past is undone, better late than never.

The book’s engagement with time is clear in Rév’s subtitle: ‘Prehistory of Post-Communism’. On the one hand, post-Communism is the prisoner of its socialist past and of that past’s interpretation, in turn, of its own recent and more distant past. (Hungarians, for example, live with the legacy that, under the Communists, Fascism was taught as being, in its essence, nothing more or less than a form of anti-Communism, continuous from the White Terror of 1919 to the murder of the Revolution’s opponents in 1956. Its virulent anti-semitism could be blamed mostly on foreigners.) Both the state and civil society are now engaged in finding new meanings in movements, dates, events, artefacts, buildings, monuments, bodies and conversations in order to create a new future.

On the other hand, this prehistory comes into focus from the perspective of the Fall. This is in part because we can now know from newly available archives things we could never have known before, but also because the story itself can be told only once it is over, and its protagonists dead beyond question. But the nature of the dead system is hard to fix on as its artefacts are examined and re-examined in the light of a rent in time: the revolutions of 1989. A history of Communism is told from the vantage-point of the end. As in the final scene of Don Giovanni, one has the sense of Central Europeans as characters left on stage – shaken, unsure – to remake their world after what had been its driving force has disappeared with supernatural suddenness.

Cultural memory depends on meaningful relationships of facts, both to one another and to surrounding places, artefacts and practices; memories and facts standing alone have no authority; they evaporate. This was the great insight of Durkheim’s student Maurice Halbwachs, and it informs Rév’s stories of a disappearing past. An exceptionally reflective German colleague who grew up and lived in the East told me that he could not remember what he was doing or where he was on the night of 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. A friend of his parents from the West recently reminded him that they had, in fact, spent the evening together having a heated argument about whether my colleague and his wife should try to emigrate. They were eager to go but the older generation kept trying to convince them that they should stay, and fight to reform the socialist system. By the next morning, no conversation could have been less memorable, having been stranded by history. (Most people in what was West Germany remember with great precision where they were and what they were doing at the triumphal moment.)

Rév’s account of worlds in the remaking takes the form of a catalogue of events and practices stretching back centuries and forward into the present. Corpses have to be laid to rest, they have to be named or not named: until the end of his days, Janós Kádár, the last Communist leader of the country, never spoke the words ‘Imre Nagy’, the name of his closest comrade, whom he had had murdered. Dead bodies have to be classified and grouped into parallel communities that refract and give authority to the communities of the living. Time has to be structured and punctuated, ordinary days distinguished from holidays, profane days from holy days; and this structure in turn anchored in bedrock realities, just as Easter had somehow to be linked to the Jewish Passover, whose timing was also not fixed but followed lunar cycles. Justice needed to be done and redone in trials and courtrooms, a process that could take a century or even longer. Rév’s protagonist here is a Fascist killer from 1919, Mihály Francia Kiss, who resurfaced in 1944 and 1956 and whose case was not closed for good until 1996. The chief prosecutor of the state of Israel, Rév reminds us, looked into whether its courts could retroactively reverse the Sanhedrin’s judgment of Jesus.

Ground and surface need to be rearticulated. There is a chapter on the underworld: not Hades but the subterranean torture cells that were incorporated, after the Fall, into the enormously popular House of Terror, where museological magicians, working for the new right-wing government, performed their Lethean magic, erasing any difference between Communism and Fascism, minimising the force of the latter, and absolving real Hungarians from both.[*] The book ends where it started – with Nagy’s re-re-re-burial, exemplary of the wondrous way in which Communism killed itself in Hungary and, by extension, elsewhere.

Like the Rheingold motif in Wagner’s Ring, Nagy’s corpse haunts this book: there at the start, the subject of two full chapters, lurking around almost all of the time. The perambulations of his unquiet body define the period from his closely guarded 1958 execution to the Fall, from the aborted revolution of 1956 that is the pivotal event in the prehistory of post-Communism to Communism’s end. But more generally, the dead, our contemporaries again, are everywhere, both in the book and in modern Europe.

In part this is because the dead remain among the living until they are properly – that is to say, ‘finally’ – laid to rest. This was the great insight of another of Durkheim’s students, Robert Hertz: the funeral is a ritual not so much of transition as of separation – ending the earthly existence of the corpse. Proper burial and a proper naming of the dead allows them to go in peace, to be forgotten in Nietzsche’s sense that memory depends on the pain of a still open sore. And conversely, digging up the dead reanimates them, whether finally to give them peace or to kill them for a second or even third time. ‘If at first you don’t succeed …’ This is the stuff of a relatively familiar general history of bodies, a history that has, at least of late, been gentler and, mercifully, less exigent, the further to the west one pursues it.

The shrouded corpse of Oliver Cromwell, dead on 3 September 1658, was disinterred from the east end of Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey and, along with the purported corpses of two other regicides, conveyed to Tyburn, where the three dead men were executed on 30 January 1661. Left hanging all day, the now re-dead bodies were decapitated and thrown anonymously into a pit: Cromwell’s bones rest somewhere below Marble Arch. The heads of the three men were stuck on poles and displayed at Westminster Hall, where they remained for some decades (no one knows for sure how long). From there, Cromwell’s skull, or what was said to be his skull, began yet another life. Sold and resold, in 1815 it came into the hands of a man named Wilkerson, in whose family’s possession it remained until 1960, when the Lord Protector’s Cambridge college, Sidney Sussex, acquired it. Absent since his undergraduate days in 1617, the Lord Protector was back, safely interred on his third attempt.

It all seems a little excessive. Even in 1661, republicanism was in little danger of resurrection; history had largely passed the corpses of the regicides by. They were perhaps not quite as definitively out in the cold as those subsisting in the Pantheon of the Working-Class Movement, with the inscription ‘They Lived for Communism and for the People’, that Rév writes about. Martyrs to what is not clear. Their resting place is in public view but they are not seen, out of mind and memory because the history to which their bodies testify is over. Their monument, obscured by bushes and starting to be overrun by grass, is on its way to becoming a romantic ruin. One feels that Cromwell could have been left in peace at the Restoration.

Of course, those who live in any given present can never tell whether a story is really over, and they have to take care of the dead accordingly. The French Revolutionary executioners of Louis XVI tried very hard to make sure that his corpse played its part in the permanent demise of monarchy by dissolving the once sacred body in quicklime. There were to be no relics for anyone to venerate, a precaution the Revolutionaries may have learned from Louis’s ancestors, who tried to disappear the bodies of Jansenists who had been denied burial in consecrated ground and whose burial sites threatened to become places of pilgrimage.

Even the royal dead of much earlier ages were mobilised to destroy the institution of monarchy. To celebrate the first anniversary of the August 1792 attack on the Tuileries and the proclamation of the Republic, the government sponsored the resurrection of Louis’s ancestors so that they could be ritually killed and disposed of in a way to ensure that they would be truly forgotten. Workmen, joined by men and women off the streets, ransacked the royal tombs at St Denis, recycled the coffins to make weapons for the war against other kings, and tossed the corpses into a ditch and, they hoped, oblivion. For the next century, bodies remained on the move in France – Napoleon’s, most significantly – into, and sometimes out of, the Panthéon.

We in the West are still not strangers to reburials as potential revisions of the past; they are never anodyne. When, in 1991, a Hohenzollern prince decided finally to bury his ancestor Frederick the Great as he had wished – with his beloved dogs at his beloved Sans Souci – serious people worried that the presence of a guard of honour and a German chancellor would allow the corpse to remind the world of Prussian militarism. (Frederick’s body had been buried first at a military church in Potsdam and then at a family castle in southern Germany.) Mostly, however, reburials in the West over the last century have been benign and healing.

The body of what became the Unknown Soldier was exhumed from the sticky mud of Flanders, transported along with bags of surrounding dirt to a Quonset hut, where he was chosen by a blindfolded brigadier from several similarly exhumed bodies and shipped by train to the Channel. There, his new, grand coffin was loaded on a destroyer and taken home, the one legally repatriated body of the Great War. He was one of several hundred thousand nameless bodies to whose number we could add hundreds of thousands of bodiless names, flesh so pounded by war as to have mixed indistinguishably with the soil of the battlefield. Names by the million spread over the fields of Europe, signs of bodies no longer of this world but also not exiled to anonymous extinction.

An even grander ongoing project is the laying to rest, as far as that is possible, of the millions whose murdered bodies, more radically severed from their names than those of dismembered soldiers, have no location. Some are in mass graves. Most went partially up a crematorium chimney as a horrible sticky residue or remained on earth as waste ash.

Then as smoke you will rise into air
Then a grave you will have in the clouds
There one lies unconfined

Paul Celan wrote in ‘Todesfuge’. These dead can generally be reburied only symbolically. Ashes are gathered from Eastern Europe’s death camps and newly interred under gravestones. At Père Lachaise they lie near the Mur des Fédérés, where the last of the Communards made their stand. The Monument to the Murdered Jews at the centre of Berlin – ‘death [was] a master from Germany’ (Celan again) – is a cemetery for those who are nowhere. Under the giant stele spread over 19,000 square metres is a kind of tomb where names and short accounts of the murdered are read, minute by minute, year after year. Millions are still lost: the 800,000 who found their way to Treblinka went to the furnaces so fast that even the meticulous Germans left no record of their throughput.

This is the more general context of Rév’s stories of bodies, disappeared and refound. It is in one sense a story common to his part of the world. To state the principle crudely: the further east one goes in Europe the more work is demanded of the dead, the greater the traffic in corpses, and the more tragically and repeatedly ruptured the course of history has been. So, for example, Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet, died of cholera in 1855 in Constantinople, where he had gone in the hope of fighting the Russians in the Crimea. From there his body went to Paris, where it remained until France would allow it out and the Austrians would allow it in, to be incorporated into the newly autonomous Habsburg third of Poland. Tens of thousands of locals and delegations from the Russian and Prussian parts met his repatriated coffin at Kraków station, en route to the cathedral where it still rests today.

The story of the deeply eccentric artist-writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz may be even stranger than it is in Rév’s version. The Communist government of Poland made an effort in 1988 to show respect for the prewar avant-garde by allowing the cultural opposition to try to reclaim his body from Ukraine, where he had died in exile. The corpse they were offered may well be that of a woman, as Rév says, but that is only the beginning. The way I heard the story from a Polish philosopher is that the corpse the delegation received was immediately suspect because when the coffin was examined the skull was seen to have a full set of teeth. Supposedly this problem had been noted earlier: someone at the exhumation had pointed out that Witkiewicz had been famously afraid of dentists and had suffered the consequences. ‘Well, that can be fixed,’ suggested the Ukrainian sexton helpfully, giving the skull a heavy blow with his shovel. Despite doubts, ‘Wickacy’ was welcomed home in a triumph of wishfulness over fact. Or perhaps no one minded, because all this was very much in keeping with Witkiewicz’s self-consciously absurdist antics when he was alive. The corpse was playing the same old game.

Nagy’s re-re-re-burial is embedded by Rév in still another strange story: that of Ferenc Morvai, the Hungarian furnace king, who set out on an archaeological expedition to Siberia to find the body of the 1848 poet martyr Sándor Petöfi – never mind that he died nowhere near there. Morvai had allowed himself to conjecture that Petöfi had not really died in a charge of Russian cavalry fighting in support of the Habsburgs but had in fact been captured and taken to a proto-gulag, thereby prefiguring the hundreds of thousands of ‘liberated’ peoples after the Second World War who were held by the Soviet army and never heard from again. Had the body that Morvai found actually been that of the poet, it would not have been that of the Hungarian hero, who died on the field of battle and is buried in an unknown grave. Burial is an act of interpretation; had the furnace king been right, Hungarians would have had to remake their old hero. In the event, lots of evidence didn’t fit: the resurrected corpse was too small; it appeared to be that of a woman, which at first didn’t seem so bad because Petöfi was said to have been an effeminate figure. But DNA testing proved that what Morvai had brought back in shoe boxes from Siberia was a woman and, further evidence suggested, an Orthodox Jew. This could not have been good news for a Magyar nationalist.

Rév’s stories, and paradigmatically Nagy’s, constitute a history of Hungarian time travel. This is a land of battles lost and consequently a country with a history of executions, exiles, political suicides and political murders. Hungary lost two thirds of its territory at the end of the First World War, making it difficult to say when something actually happened ‘in Hungary’. For example, deciding when the first Russian liberator set foot on Hungarian soil in 1945 – a date to be commemorated – depends on what exactly one means by ‘Hungary’. Even at the heart of Budapest, on Heroes’ Square, the scene in 1989 of Nagy’s funeral, statues have come and gone with bewildering rapidity, signalling changes in the national story: out went the Habsburg kings in 1919; back they came with the defeat of the Soviet republic; out again with the Communist victory in 1945, to be replaced by the leaders of centuries of anti-Habsburg rebellions. This memorial was in turn replaced in 1956 by a plaque commemorating the brave Hungarians who had died for their country’s independence: that is, who had supported the Russian invaders.

Rév’s point is not just that reburials are forms of remaking but that they are the means of altering the flow of time itself. A month before he died and was himself buried, József Antall, the post-Communist conservative prime minister, arranged for the reburial with great ceremony – ethnic costumes, hussars in 17th-century uniforms – of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the interwar regent. The old Fascist’s reburial built a temporal bridge between 19 March 1944, when the Germans invaded and overthrew the puppet government, and the post-Communist regime. Everything in between had been the work of outsiders. (Antall was by training a historian for whom, Rév suggests, ‘politics was writing history by other means.’)

Names function, Rév shows, in much the same way as bodies to keep the past at bay or to reconstitute it in the present. This is, in some measure, a philosophical claim: names actually convey information about a person, they are ‘factually informative identity statements’. To recall a name is to recall crucial things about its bearer. This means, on the one hand, that we can never be quite sure what the criteria are for securing a name to a person – Hitler would still be Hitler without some of his crimes – and, on the other, that when we use a name we mean to convey with it a lot about the person named. From this it follows that one can never be sure what exactly it will mean or is meant to mean when the name is used in public; it is open to redefinition in all sorts of ways, including through its relationship to other names. ‘How can you mention x in the same breath as y?’ is a powerful rebuke, because by linking names one redefines, or even creates, the relationship between people, often long dead.

Rév derives this view from the writings of John Searle, after a long discussion of the opposing views of Saul Kripke, who argues that names are so-called ‘rigid designators’, which refer to a person in all possible worlds and circumstances; Hitler would be Hitler even if he had been a philo-semite. This is perhaps the only place in this book where readers might skip a few pages: take Rév’s word for it that names carry information and are unstable in use. Or rather, engage with the historical and anthropological grounds for his view of the power of the necronym. The hunter-gatherers of the Nicobar Islands are loath to pronounce a name lest a relationship be set up between the person uttering a name and the person, dead or alive, who is being named; the Penan of Borneo take a necronym because a dead person thereby comes to exist again in a living person. And, in modern Hungary, Kádár resolutely refused to speak the name ‘Imre Nagy’ because to have done so would have been to affirm that the murdered leader existed as a dead person and that, in turn, he himself stood in an all too clear relationship to Nagy, as his murderer.

Others were less delicate. Names towered over the politics of the street: a huge demonstration on 15 March 1989 – 15 March was the day the 1848 Revolution began – carried signs that read ‘Kádár-Haybau, Imre Nagy-Batthyány’. In other words, Kádár, the man who restored order for the Russians in 1956, stands with the ‘Hyena of Brescia’ who, in the service of Franz Joseph, executed vengeance on the 1848ers; and the murdered hero of the 1956 revolution and the murdered hero of 1848 are brought onto the same temporal plane. Names are much debated in the halls of power: Nagy’s was in the draft version of the first bill passed by the first post-Communist parliament, proclaiming the link between 1848, 1956 and the new freedom. It was removed at the insistence of the conservatives, who thought better of including a Communist. But in a 1996 ‘names’ bill it was there again, at the insistence of the socialists, who saw Nagy as the reformer in relationship to whom they as a party existed. Yet also on the list, among the 270 names read out in silence, was that of Kiss, the Fascist murderer exonerated in 1920 in a general amnesty, tried and convicted in absentia in 1947, tried again and executed finally by the restored regime after 1956. He, like Nagy, was a victim of Communist repression but with a twist. The Communists had been right after all is what the inclusion of his name argues: 1956 was really an effort to go back to 1944, when foreigners, German Fascists and Russians, had interrupted real Hungarian history. Now it could begin again.

Monuments, too, can be used to stop time in this way. Thus the post-1956 regime builds a great memorial to those who were ‘martyred’ in defending the real revolution against the false one: these are the dead who now ‘do not make sense’. At the same time, those in the once obscure Plot 21 now become ‘our dead’: the counter-revolutionaries become heroes. Even those who did not die in 1956 but claim to have played their part are there, the ‘special dead’ on whose memorials the magic year ‘1956’ is written between their birth and death dates. A memorial made of crosses in the style of traditional, peasant Hungary, inscribed with the key dates of the revolution, announces to the world what this sacred spot means. This burial plot connects the new special dead with the old ones: it is next to Kossuth’s mausoleum. It is not today as it was in the Middle Ages, when it was the dead who haunted the living; now it is the ‘living who haunt the dead’.

Human beings do not live in smooth but rather in punctuated time. Holy days – holidays – mark the breathing and stopping places with what we come to believe is an underlying reality. They are not arbitrary. We pause, remember and live in certain rhythms and cycles because with respect to the days that create them we are all realists. The success of temporal punctuation depends on the extent to which we feel that it reflects some basic, some organic quiddity. The prehistory of post-Communism comes into being and is made manifest by the unravelling of precisely these connections.

Rév tells the story delicately. Roughly speaking, 4 April had been the Hungarian 14 July, the day of liberation, in this case from the Germans by the Russians. In the 1980s, still under the Communists, the ground on which it was built was undermined: the first village said to have been liberated was not the one long supposed; maybe it was not on 4 April but the 13th; maybe it wasn’t even in Hungary. Slowly, as the regime itself unravelled, it realised that it had to give up on 4 April. But the alternative first proposed was impossible: a holiday cycle, beginning with the old date celebrating liberation by the Soviets, going on to 16 June (the date of Nagy’s execution and reburial), and finally to 23 October, the day the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956 broke out, was manifestly incoherent. The last Communist parliament settled on Monday, 23 October 1989 to proclaim the republic from the balcony of their Gothic seat. But this was not to be a reprise of that 23 October in 1956 when, from the same balcony, Nagy had addressed the anti-Soviet crowd. Rather, it went back 141 years. On 23 October 1848, Lajos Kossuth had proclaimed a republic and the overthrow of the Habsburgs. Like the early Christians, whose feasts and churches replaced pagan ones, the last Communists sought to ‘overwrite’ a past. They failed.

And, if Rév’s words are to have any effect, so will the efforts of the post-Communist successors to erase another past by overwriting it. Rév’s objection to the House of Terror, built at great expense in what had been the headquarters of the Fascist Arrow Cross and subsequently became the headquarters of the Communist secret police, is not just that it conflates the two regimes while giving overwhelming preponderance to the second. It is not just that this building is made to connect what is not connected in history and does so by excluding consideration of other sites that are thereby rendered innocent: in fact, many of the war criminals captured in Germany ended up in the cellars of Military Intelligence, which are now in the Central European University where Rév teaches. It is rather that the building is made to bear witness to a history that is demonstrably at variance from the documentary record. It produces a monolithic story with no room for contingency; it compresses time.

‘The fact that both regimes chose 60 Andrássy Boulevard’ – the House of Terror – ‘as the scene of torture and interrogation speaks for itself,’ says the website devoted to the shrine. No, it does not, Rév insists. There is ‘no real situation behind the text – this is just text; words compromised by the site’, which in turn claims to authorise them. There is no ‘concrete, tangible horror’; this is not, as the building presents it, the only conceivable story that could have been told; Hungary was one of Nazi Germany’s earliest allies; it had passed anti-semitic legislation from the early 1920s onward; it need not have participated so eagerly in the deportation of half a million of its own citizens to Auschwitz in the Holocaust’s most intensive genocidal frenzy. The citizens of the new Hungary, who flocked to the building in their hundreds of thousands, could see in its solidity ‘the story of an undifferentiated terror from the moment of the German occupation until the summer of 1991, when, 57 years later, the Soviet army left the territory of Hungary’. In other words, ‘real’ Hungarians had nothing to do with any of this. And once again time can take up from where it left off.

Rév makes manifest the political aesthetics of all this by some beautiful architectural detective work. The entrance to the House of Terror is deeply indebted to Mario Sironi’s 1932 Gallery of the Fascist Revolution. Both are ‘total propaganda spaces, where death and victims are used as rhetorical devices’. The prehistory of post-Communism, in short, has some unsavoury sources. (It is also of course related to Bolshevik propaganda spaces, in connections Rév also traces.)

I have in some sense done an injustice to this subtle book by presenting its arguments in a more or less linear form. This is not how Rév works. He weaves story into story, within the main text and between it and the notes. Sometimes what seems to be a wild goose chase proves to be anything but. The chapter on the House of Terror, which makes much of the supposed torture cells in its basement, begins with a discussion of the Moscow subway. One wonders why. In a sort of coda we find out: the architect Attital Kovas had been a film-set designer. The atmosphere of the Metro had been his inspiration for a gloomy hotel interior, he told a reporter. ‘That over decorated, desolate, and unbearably gloomy underground space found its way then to the House of Terror.’

There is another reason, however, for Rév’s self-conscious arabesques, and complex interweaving of stories. He wants, indeed he needs, to insist that there is a truth to be found in the archives: that one story is better, and better supported than another. In other words, there is a ‘better’ and a worse narrative. Yet he also insists on an openness to history. Teleology, as I said earlier, is, in his view, both dangerous and morally corrupting. One reads with disgust George Lukács’s exoneration of the horrors of the 1920 revolution as being justified because they were on the side of history. Rév produces a kind of open history by making his readers unsure about how precisely two stories are connected. Coincidence after all is an oxymoron: to claim that two events are coincidental is already to claim that they are more than that; that they belong somehow together. We are meant to ask ourselves whether two stories put side by side are connected and if so how. In giving the past back the freedom that we suffer from in the present, Rév inevitably makes us wonder whether – and how – we are to make a future from it.

[*] When I visited Hungary on the eve of the 2002 elections I was offered unsolicited advice by the desk clerk who checked me into my hotel: I had better see the museum this trip, he said, because if the socialists won they would close it immediately. I tried but the line to get in stretched around the block. The socialists and their allies did win; the museum remains open.