Seventy years after the Holocaust ravaged Hungary, Budapest's right-wing government is whitewashing the country's wartime sins by building a garish monument to a past that never existed.
BUDAPEST, Hungary — Since late March, an almost daily drama pitting a large contingent of stern-faced policemen against a gathering of mostly gray-haired protesters has been playing out in downtown Budapest's leafy Szabadsag, or "Freedom," Square. On most afternoons, at the square's southern end, where on warmer days small children splash around in a series of fountains, blue uniformed police form a protective cordon around the construction site of a small, partially finished monument. And every afternoon, these officers are joined by a group of protesters -- on a recent sunny day, they numbered close to 100 -- who join hands to form a perimeter of their own, circling the site as they sing along to communist-era protest songs played from a nearby sound system.
The monument in question is still mostly hidden behind a fence covered with white cloth, but designs shown to the public have revealed it to be an artistically challenged creation: Heavy-handed in its symbolism, kitschy in its execution, it depicts a wrathful eagle -- intended to represent Germany -- swooping down on the Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary. Designed by sculptor Parkanyi Raab Peter, the monument is being built, the country's right-wing government says, to honor the victims of Nazi Germany's occupation of the country in March of 1944. But the protesters who spend their afternoons surrounding the statue say the monument is a historical outrage: that it whitewashes the deep and troubling role Hungary's Nazi-sympathetic government played in the deportation of a massive number of Jews to Auschwitz in 1944, and depicts Hungary as an innocent victim of the Third Reich -- not as the collaborator it was.
The monument, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, they say -- a small part of a large-scale attempt to rewrite Hungary's history, with a nationalist twist. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his populist government, under pressure on their right flank from Jobbik, a popular, anti-Semitic far-right party, have embarked on an effort, critics say, to reconstruct the historical narrative through institutions from museums to theaters to concerts.
"The government is redoing history, redoing the cultural markers," says Amy Brouillette, a researcher at the media studies center at Budapest's Central European University. "That's the sign of a real regime change."
Over the last few years, Orban's Fidesz party has been behind the sacking of theater and museum directors who were apparently too closely affiliated with previous liberal governments. In 2012, for example, Budapest's Fidesz mayor orchestrated the dismissal of Istvan Marta, the longtime director of the city's respected New Theater, replacing him with György Dörner, an actor and voice-over artist who had campaigned for Jobbik in the past. Since Dörner's appointment, the theater has shifted towards staging almost exclusively plays by Hungarians with Christian and nationalist themes ("classical and boring," as one Budapest journalist described them). The theater's current season, for example, features a play set in the year 994, telling the story of how the early Hungarian kings brought their people to Christianity. More distressingly, the theater has also staged a drama by the late Jozsef Nyrio, a figure reviled by many for his anti-Semitic writings and for his role as chief propagandist for Hungary's World War II fascist party.
Fidesz has also overseen, via the erection of statues and other memorials, the rehabilitation of the divisive Admiral Miklos Horthy, who led Hungary from 1920 to 1944. The rehabilitation of Horthy, a nationalist hero for his efforts to regain Hungarian territories lost after World War I -- a mission that led him into Hungary's doomed alliance with the Nazis -- was, until recent years, considered too politically loaded an undertaking. Now, streets are renamed in his honor, and busts of the admiral are unveiled regularly in towns across Hungary. Orban's government has also passed legislation playing up certain nationalist touchstones in Hungary's history: In 2010, for instance, Fidesz passed a law creating a day of national commemoration for the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, a peace agreement notorious in Hungary for costing the country some two-thirds of its territory.
The effort to reconstruct history fits within a pattern of encouraging nationalism in Hungarian culture more generally. Last year, for instance, the Orban government left many speechless when it awarded its highest state journalism prize to a television host, Ferenc Szaniszlo, known for spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and anti-Roma diatribes; the same year, a top cultural award, known as the Golden Cross of Merit, was bestowed on the lead singer of a nationalist rock band, Karpatia. A favorite of Jobbik voters, the band sings about threats to Hungary's honor and penned a song that became the anthem of a now-banned extreme-right paramilitary militia known as the Hungarian Guard.
Some of the government's actions seem to be fueled by its rivalry with Jobbik. The xenophobic party is currently the second-largest group in parliament, having received 20 percent of the vote in last April's election, up from 17 percent in 2010. "In Hungary, politics are now a competition between the populist right and the extreme right. This means that Fidesz has to present itself as the defender of the nation, including against Jobbik," Peter Kreko, one of Hungary's leading political analysts, told me. "But it also means they need to incorporate parts of Jobbik's platform to attract right-wing voters. As a result, there is a mainstreaming of the positions of the extreme right."
But this amping up of nationalism in Hungary also takes place against the backdrop of efforts by the Orban government to pass a raft of laws that further entrench it and Fidesz in power, weakening, in the process, the democratic gains Hungary has made in the post-Communist era. The party has passed tax legislation, for instance, that effectively targets business groups unfriendly to Fidesz and has made constitutional changes that have allowed it to appoint loyalists to key positions in the judiciary. In Freedom House's recently issued "Nations in Transit" report, which tracks democratic development in a region stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia, Hungary -- a European Union member since 2004 -- was in fact one of the worst backsliders. "Hungary's multiyear governance decline … remains the most poignant reminder that democratization in post-communist Europe is neither complete nor irreversible," the report said.
Hungary in 2014 is still recovering from a traumatic, humiliating 20th century that left its citizens primed for strongman politicians who make nationalist appeals. A former pillar of the dual Austro-Hungarian empire, Hungary found its territory severely diminished after WWI, with large Hungarian communities left as residents of bordering countries. In the following half-century, Hungary was eventually occupied by both the Nazis and then, at the end of World War II, by Soviet troops. Hungary's communist period lasted until 1989, when the country played an important role in ushering in the fall of the Berlin Wall by opening up its border with the West. When Hungary joined the EU in 2004, it seemed to mark a moment of important political recovery for the country.
But all this turbulence and trauma has made history -- and, in particular, the subject of World War II and its aftermath -- a ready target for political tugs of war. On the one hand, Fidesz has been credited with taking some positive steps: for example, setting aside 2014 as a year to commemorate the Holocaust and providing government funds for memorial projects and events. On the other hand, as with the monument in Freedom Square, Fidesz has been accused of offering up a narrative in which Hungarian responsibility for what happened in 1944 is diminished by portraying all Hungarians as victims, despite Horthy's alliance with Hitler, and even though over the course of the war, as City University of New York historian Randolph Braham has written, "approximately 200,000 Hungarian policemen, gendarmes, civil servants, and 'patriotic' volunteers had collaborated in the anti-Jewish drive with a routine and efficiency that impressed even the relatively few SS who had served as 'advisors.'"
The government line minimizes the horror of the Holocaust period by linking it with the 45-year Soviet occupation as one long continuum of Hungarian suffering. The House of Terror, for example -- a museum opened in Budapest in 2002 with Fidesz support -- tells the terrible story of the violence inflicted upon Hungarians during World War II and the communist era (the building where the institution is housed served as the headquarters of both the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party and the communist secret police). But historians and other critics say the government's approach to history, as embodied in the House of Terror, conflates two distinct periods, presenting both Nazism and communism as foreign imports foisted upon Hungarians while subtly suggesting that the communist period -- which Hungary's far-right attributes to Jewish influence -- was as horrendous as the Holocaust.
"The government's line is, 'We are sorry for what happened. Yes, the Nazi occupation was horrible, the Soviet occupation was horrible, but we had nothing to do with it.' It's quite clearly an abdication of dealing with the country's past honestly, of dealing with issues of responsibility," says Gwen Jones, a historian affiliated with Central European University who is organizing a project to commemorate the Budapest buildings where the city's Jews were forced to relocate ahead of being deported to Auschwitz.
Fed up with the government's approach and with the construction of the monument in Freedom Square, the main organization representing Hungary's estimated 100,000 Jews, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, announced earlier this year it would not participate in any of Fidesz's projects commemorating the 70th anniversary on the Holocaust in Hungary this year. Meanwhile, some 50 organizations that received close to $1 million in government money for the commemoration have returned it, forming their own alliance that is now trying to independently raise funds for projects.
Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesman whom I met in his office in Budapest's ornate 19th-century Parliament building, denied Fidesz was engaging in revisionism. "No one wants to whitewash the responsibility of the Hungarian authorities. No one questions that. We are ashamed of that," he said, regarding the debate about the disputed monument. But, he added: "We believe the story is only complete if there is the German invasion part in it.... That's why the monument has to be dedicated to that event."
Not far from the Parliament, in a Jewish community center building on a side street near Budapest's opera house -- another one of the city's opulent 19th-century buildings -- I went to meet with Gabor Szanto, a novelist and poet who also edits a Jewish cultural and political monthly magazine called Szombat. The community center was one of the "yellow star houses" during the war -- a place of impending doom for the Jews who were forced to move into it under regulations passed by the Hungarian government. Today it houses a café, theater, and a number of local Jewish organizations, serving as potent symbol for a community that has managed to slowly rebuild itself after the devastation of the Holocaust.
Szanto said he doesn't doubt that the Orban government believes in its own narrative of the Nazi period. Not enough credence is given to what is called "Trianon trauma," he said -- the sense of victimhood many Hungarians feel as a result of the losses suffered by their country after World War I, which colors how they view the rest of the country's traumatic 20th-century history.
Still, Szanto said, the building of the monument can't be divorced from Hungary's current politics. "The government needs a tool to steal voters from the far right, and that tool is in the field of historical narratives," he told me. "This coming to terms with the past is a process. The debate about the past is still open but the statue is something final. The debate is something that is still hot, but the statue is a cold stone."
This project was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images