Not Just a Phase

Nora Berend and Christopher Clark on the Hungarian government’s attempts to rewrite the country’s past

This summer, a new monument appeared in Budapest’s Liberty Square. Amid a copse of truncated white marble pillars stands the metal figure of a slender young man. Wrapped from hips to feet in windswept drapery, he opens his arms to the sky. In his right hand he bears the orb of political authority surmounted by the Hungarian double-barred cross. Wings sprout from his shoulder blades. His expression is one of seraphic tranquillity, which is odd, because swooping down on him is a monstrous eagle bolted together from shards of gleaming black metal, its features convulsed into a mask of malevolence, its talons poised to snatch the orb. The young man is the archangel Gabriel, newly engaged as patron and symbol of the Magyar nation. The eagle (though it bears an uncanny resemblance to the bird that decorates the German Bundestag today) represents Nazi Germany. The monument commemorates the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944.

The new monument in Liberty Square.
The new monument in Liberty Square.

Liberty Square has long been a space where memories of the Hungarian past are contested. The square itself is the result of an act of historical erasure. It extends across the space once occupied by the Újépület barracks, in which Hungarian national leaders were imprisoned by the Austrians in the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1848-49. Today it boasts both an imposing monument over the grave of Red Army soldiers killed in the siege of Budapest, one of the last Soviet memorials left in the city, and a life-sized statue of a grinning Ronald Reagan, erected in 2011. Even the Soviet war memorial sits on the foundations of an earlier monument that mourned the lands taken from Hungary under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon, imposed by the victors of the First World War.

From early April, when construction began, there have been demonstrations every afternoon against Budapest’s latest national memorial. Armed police guarded the building site, videoing protesters and demanding to see identity cards. The structure was completed at the dead of night and there was no public unveiling ceremony. It is still under police guard. There has been a chorus of criticism from historians, art critics and other public intellectuals in Hungary and abroad. It is hard to disagree with the Hungarian art historian József Mélyi, who described the memorial as ‘academic kitsch with faulty symbolism and execution’.

But the roots of the current controversy lie in the iconography of the monument itself. The eagle swoops from a stylised classical pediment inscribed with the words ‘To the Victims of the German Occupation’. The message is reinforced by a stone slab bearing the English dedication ‘To the Memory of Victims’, with translations in German, Russian and Hebrew, though the text is unidiomatic in every language (the Hebrew phrase has been split in two and the sections carved in the wrong order by someone unaware that Hebrew is read from right to left).

The monument portrays the Hungarian nation, represented by an angelic figure, as the hapless ‘victim’ of Nazi violence. In fact, Hungary was one of the chief beneficiaries of Axis policy. Under the First Vienna Award of 1938, Germany and Italy presented Hungary with territory in Czechoslovakia and Subcarpathia. In 1939, the Hungarian army occupied the rest of Subcarpathia and part of eastern Slovakia. Following the Second Vienna Award of 1940, Hungary reclaimed Northern Transylvania, lost under the terms of the Trianon Treaty, and later joined in the invasion of Yugoslavia, securing yet more territory. On 27 June 1941, five days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Hungarian prime minister László Bárdossy declared that a state of war had ‘occurred’ between Hungary and the Soviet Union and the country entered the war on the side of the Axis.

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