In its WittyLeaks section, Diplomacy & Trade carries articles written by ambassadors accredited to Hungary on topics that are outside their official duties. For a recent issue, the Norwegian Ambassador wrote a piece on the changing Budapest.
I came to Budapest for the first time at a crucial moment in history. It was the spring of 1992, the city was in bloom and the fall of the Berlin wall was a reality. Hungary had been the first country to open its border with Austria in 1989, setting in motion what was to become the slow reintegration of Europe. The Soviet occupation had ended and the whole country breathed a relieved sigh, looking to a brighter future.
Yet, the long Soviet rule had left its marks. I remember it well. I lived at a cheap hotel tucked away in the labyrinthine streets of downtown Pest, lost somewhere deep in the old Jewish ghetto. The carpets were threadbare, the furniture worn-down and the toilet an intimate encounter with the lingering presence of Soviet reality.
Out in the city, the shops were nearly empty, their shelves dotted with the occasional product. Old buildings were so dilapidated that only the occasional, lopsided gargoyle hinted at their faded beauty. Crumbling facades were black with soot.
When I look back today, only the river remains the same. The Danube is majestic, flowing ever down toward the Black Sea. But Budapest has transformed itself. Whole streets and bridges are renovated and trade has been reinvigorated. The cityscape is brighter; once black buildings are now white, shining in their former glory. When I look back at the city, I remember it from that early spring in 1992 and I rejoice at the progress that has been made.
Those of us old enough to remember, remember these things personally. For the generations that follow, we keep relics of the past to ensure that history is never forgotten. The Memento Park in Budapest is exactly such a repository of collective memory.
I visited it recently, overwhelmed by the size of the monuments lined up there. The park is peopled with mammoth sculptures of the West’s most mythologized representations of communist rule: enormous steel statues of Lenin, Marx and the fabled worker and peasant fighters struggling for their freedom.
Due to the insular flow of information during the Cold War, we had very limited knowledge of life under communist rule in Norway. All we knew was that it was ‘very bad’ and also ‘very dangerous’. Looking around the Memento Park in the company of other curious tourists, I was struck by how this dense collection of monuments seemed to reinforce all our Cold-War stereotypes about communist rule.
These statues had all been removed from the streets by the time I visited Budapest for the first time in 1992. I caught myself wondering how they must have dominated the city with their looming presence. Walking in the park with monuments packed closely together like silent sentinels of history, their sheer size was oppressive.
What to hold on to
During my walk, I discovered a philosophical conundrum in this graveyard of totalitarian propaganda. I was not quite at ease among the carefree tourists snapping photos of Lenin on a pedestal. The Memento Park has become a tourist destination in its own right, marketing communist nostalgia as quaint historical entertainment.
When the park was opened, its architect Ákos Elõd said it was also a monument to democracy, for only democracy allows us to think freely about dictatorship. It is the hallmark of a true democracy that it allows open debate. A dialogue on the difficult aspects of the communist legacy are necessary as part of the healing process.
Yet I wondered how many of my fellow tourists really reflected on the deep historical shadows cast by these monuments silently carrying their communist heritage. Instead, I feared they merely saw stereotypical representations stripped of the terror which was so essential to understanding the historical reality behind the statues.
Historical memory is crucial. Without historical consciousness we stand in perpetual danger of repeating the mistakes of the past. Keeping the memories of our darkest days alive is critical if we want to avoid going down the path of terror and war once more. The House of Terror museum on Andrássy Street 60 is a valuable example where the fear experienced by ordinary citizens is ably documented through exhibitions and historical lectures.
The naked monuments of the Memento Park enjoy no such disambiguation and so fill the visitor with ambivalence. Will future generations of young Hungarians wish to preserve these remnants of communism which are now so eagerly photographed by well-meaning tourists?
I can’t help but recall that no Nazi monuments were left standing after 1945. They were all destroyed in order to spare the survivors the pain of encountering the symbols of their oppression. Similarly, one of the first acts in 1991 was to remove the monuments of the totalitarian regime from the squares and market places of Hungary. The ghosts of the past must be faced and banished so that the wounds can heal and people can build a new life. Hungarians have had to learn this through history’s bitter lessons.
Back to the future
Today, Budapest is a European metropolis bursting with life and vitality. Old communist street signs are so faded that they are barely discernible on those facades where they still linger. Both the city and the country as a whole have come a long way since communist monuments cast dark shadows over its squares.
I can only be glad that those gloomy days are over and that Hungary is once more integrated in Europe, where she belongs. I remember days when things were very different and I rejoice that our shared European values have brought us closer together. I look to our common future with hope, where we are all free to remember our shared history together. And I wonder whether there will ever be a Memento Park in North Korea, when the regime of Kim Jong-Un relaxes its iron grip on the country and that people will finally be free to choose, too.