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Commemoration

A Sunny Day on Freedom Square, Budapest

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Evoking the potential plot of a dystopian political thriller, there is an actual place where former US presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Axis-allied Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy, the Soviet Red Army, as well as 21st century right-wing populist historical revisionism come together. Szabadság ter (Freedom Square) in the heart of Budapest bulges with competing narratives whose silent screams merge into the cacophonous political realities of current-day Central Europe. Having pushed a pram in endless circles across this square during the first year of my son’s life, I never ceased to be struck by the historical hysteria of the commemoration circus adorning the space around me. 

Public spaces are contested spaces. Recent years have seen heated debates fuelled by the lingering presence of monuments and statues that offer an unproblematised national narrative at best, or even serve to flat-out glorify past atrocities. These discussions have mostly been waged in the west. In the US scrutiny befalls Civil War-era ‘heroes’ whose supposed heroism was forged on the broken and bloody backs of slaves. In Europe swords are crossed over monuments related to colonial legacies: the statues of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol and of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square. Most Dutch cities have streets named after various ‘Zeehelden’ (‘sea heroes’), such as Dutch East India Company officer Jan Pieterszoon Coen, responsible for large-scale violence against the local population on the Banda Islands to secure access to nutmeg and clove in the 17th century. (Coen’s statue in his hometown Hoorn also led to modest protests last year.)

What seems to be at stake is not just the conflicting messages undergirding different lieux de mémoire (‘sites of memory’, to self-consciously refer to Pierre Nora’s much-quoted concept). Rather, it is the tension between a hegemonic narrative based on outdated sets of morality connected to ‘national glory’, and the lived realities of the descendants of the victims of this ‘glory’. The latter are themselves often subjected to structural racism prevalent in 21st century societies. 

In Central and Eastern Europe the use of public spaces for memory-formation has a different yet equally convoluted history. After 1989, most post-Communist governments quickly undid themselves of physical references to their countries’ immediate pasts. Socialist monuments—statues of Lenin, Stalin, local communist leaders and heroes, idealised images of working men and women—were mostly destroyed. In Hungary’s capital Budapest various statues were instead collected on a desolate stretch outside of the city. A remarkable tribute to a much-detested past, Memento Park is still a must-see for any historically interested visitor. (I recommend a slightly overcast and chilly winter’s day for the most atmospheric and—dare I say it—authentic experience.)

However, one would be mistaken to assume that post-1989 Budapest is free of politically charged monuments. On the contrary, the politicisation of history has only intensified since Viktor Orbán’s ‘illiberal’ (Orbán’s own term) populist Fidesz party came to power in 2010. 

This is nowhere more poignantly visible than on Szabadság ter. The execution site of Prime Minister Lájos Batthyány after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848/1849, the square obtained its current layout at the end of the 19th century. In 1946, at the very beginning of socialist rule in Hungary, the centrally placed monument to the Soviet liberators of the city was erected. After 1989, this epic structure lost much of its revered status and in the early 2000s there was some talk of demolishing the whole thing. Instead, a fence and guards were installed to prevent vandals from attacking the site, as Russia threatened economic sanctions if anything were to happen to the monument. 

The Monument to the Soviet Liberators. Photo credit: Laura Almagor

Hungarian authorities did allow for the appearance of two symbolic ‘challengers of communism’. Life-like statues of former US Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. were placed on either side of the Soviet memorial column, in 2011 and 2020 respectively. While open for other interpretations as well, one thing these statues signal is that despite political ties with Russia communism does fervently belong to the past. 

Statue of Ronald Reagan with the Hungarian Parliament in the background. Photo credit: Laura Almagor
Statue of George Bush Sr. in front of the US Embassy. Photo credit: Laura Almagor

Certainly not in the past is Hungarian irredentism manifested in lingering nostalgia for pre-World War I Greater Hungary, which was brought to an end by the Treaty of Trianon (1920). Second World War leader Horthy initially backed Adolf Hitler in the hope of regaining some of Hungary’s lost territories. In 2013, members of the ultra-right-wing section of the Hungarian Reformed Church believed that these efforts warranted a bust of Horthy, which now stands at their church’s entrance on the square’s edge. Even though technically on private property, the statue’s visibility led to discontent amongst liberal Hungarians (one of whom attacked the bust with a red paint bomb last year). 

If the presence of a stern-looking Horthy, partially held responsible for the mass-murder of Hungarian Jews and Gypsies during the Holocaust, was not yet enough of an affront to Jewish and Romani minorities, the following year saw the erection of what is now the most eye-catching structure on the square: an archaic-looking memorial for ‘the victims of the Second World War’. A German eagle attacks the Archangel Gabriel—a stand-in for an undifferentiatedly victimised Hungary. Absent is any reference to the Hungarian complicity in the deportation to Auschwitz of half a million Hungarian Jews in the spring and summer of 1944 alone. The monument was erected covertly overnight on 21 July 2014 and aroused large-scale controversy lasting until this day.

The Hungarian Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation (close-up). Visible are various sheets attached to the fence containing expressions of disapproval of the monument’s historical distortion.
Photo credit: Laura Almagor

But it is not just the monuments that render Szabadság ter historically charged. Looking at the 21st century, one could also mention the storming of the now vacated Television Building by mostly right-wing groups in 2006, as part of the protests against Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s socialist government. Briefly leaving the square, around the corner we find the now mostly deserted campus of the Central European University. Since this year, the CEU has started operating from Vienna after having been effectively ousted from Hungary by a cynically formulated new law. Hiding behind legal semantics, Orbán still does not admit to having pushed the university out of the country. It is clear, however, that he considered the CEU a political Trojan horse for the university’s founder and the Prime Minister’s chosen arch-enemy George Soros. 

On most days, history is silent on the square. Instead, one hears children playing and dogs barking as they chase fat pigeons across the central field. Szabadság ter is also home to a sizable colony of hooded crows. On a cold winter’s night, their cawing adds to the Poe-like eeriness of this marvellous place. Do visit, if you ever have the chance.

Note: Szabadság ter’s monument medley was also eloquently analysed by Cara Eckholm in 2014.

Laura Almagor is a lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s History Department and the editor of History Matters. She specialises in modern Jewish history with a special focus on Jewish political movements and ideologies. She also has a keen research interest in memory cultures. Laura divides her time between Sheffield and Budapest.

Cover image: The Hungarian Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation on Szabadság ter. Photo credit: Laura Almagor

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It Happened Here: The Annihilation of the Jews of the Amsterdam Rivierenbuurt, 1940-1945

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To this day, the Dutch have been unable to achieve closure concerning how the Germans were able to kill, with such relative ease, between seventy and eighty per cent of the country’s 140,500 Jews during their Second World War Occupation of the Netherlands. This proportion was by far the highest in western Europe. Many varied and complex subsidiary questions involving perpetrators, victims, bystanders and survivors still remain unexplored. Moreover, very little published research, if any, in the historiography of the persecution, has so far investigated how the urban design of a particular local neighbourhood might perhaps have contributed to theannihilation of its Jews.  

Much attention has rightly focussed on the more than sixty per cent of the country’s Jews who lived in Amsterdam, However, inherent elements of the built environment, capable of analysis by the application of interdisciplinary approaches, have been largely disregarded as potentially significant factors in this field that might otherwise contribute to the wider debate. 

A pertinent example of such an area is the Rivierenbuurt (Rivers District), a tranquil suburb a few kilometres to the south of the historic centre of Amsterdam, erected in the 1920s and 1930s and occupying only 140 hectares, a negligible 0.003 per cent of the landmass of the entire Netherlands. 

A walk through the Rivierenbuurt in 2020 barely discloses connections with its tragic past. This is unexpected, when it is understood that 13,000 individuals, out of its Jewish population of 17,000, were removed by the Germans and murdered in the death camps of eastern Europe. While Jews from many other parts of Amsterdam, and elsewhere in the country, also lost their lives in this way, the Rivierenbuurt stands out because its Jewish population represented one in nine (19.5 per cent) of the Dutch Jews. 

Certainly, the Germans were well aware of the Rivierenbuurt’s disproportionately large Jewish population from the outset of the Occupation. This awareness took on a greater relevance after February 1941, when a ghettowas imposed in the Jodenhoek (‘Jewish Corner’), the traditional centre of Jewish settlement of Amsterdam. While this ghetto had been based on the principles of eastern European paradigms, it proved to be untenable because the Germans could not seal in its Jewish population, due to the high proportion of non-Jews living there who needed to continue to interact with the rest of the city.

Thus, by the middle of 1941, the Germans alighted upon an alternative approach that could help achieve their aim by harnessing existing local conditions as they pertained specifically to Amsterdam. Henceforth, three discrete Jodenwijken (‘Jewish Districts’), took the place of the ghetto, of which the Rivierenbuurt was by far the largest.

The Germans called this model of containment a ‘lockeres Ghetto’ (slack ghetto), an unenclosed district that allowed resident non-Jews, and Jews, to continue to live alongside each other. In consequence, the physical barriers of the ghetto were rendered superfluous, thereby allowing the Rivierenbuurt to remain open and accessible. Instead, the activities and movements of Jews were controlled by means of an extraordinarily wide range of persecutory measures, of which personal registration, restricted employment, travel permits and the wearing of the ‘Jewish Star’ for identification purposes were but a few.

If the Germans did not explicitly recognize the advantages of the spatial conditions that already existed in the Rivierenbuurt before the mass deportations of the Jews began in July 1942, they soon exploited their benefits. Able to round up their Jewish victims in efficient operations with minimal resources, they could send them rapidly to local assembly points and for onward transportation to almost certain death in the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibór. This was achieved, in the first instance, by being able to deploy police during razzias (raids for rounding up Jews) along the grand avenues of the Rivierenbuurt, the design of which was clearly derived from authoritarian precedents, as seen in Paris, St. Petersburg or Imperial Rome (see photo below). Secondly, the boundaries of the Rivierenbuurt delineated by the River Amstel and canals were capable of being cut off from the surrounding city by raising the bridges, as occurred, for example, without warning, in a major dawn razzia on 20 June 1943. Thirdly, the regimented grid-like planning of the secondary side streets created a net during razzias, the mesh of which could be enlarged or reduced in size as required to isolate specific localities where Jews lived. 

Rooseveltlaan [south end], Rivierenbuurt
Source: David Kann, 16 September 2016

In other circumstances, inherent flaws in the progressive architectural design would also have been taken for granted by their designers and residents, yet were capable of disclosing further opportunities for the Germans. This came about because four and five storey residential blocks with long frontages, designed for sustaining intensive housing densities, extended from one street corner to another. Each of these contained tightly packed clusters of spacious apartments in which large numbers of people were billeted when the Germans forced Jews from all parts of the country to move to the Rivierenbuurt, which, in effect, rendered it a large detention camp in all but name, pending their future deportation to the camps. Furthermore, awkward and narrow, steep staircases, accessed by open, communal entrance archways, led from the street to upper floors without alternative escape routes. Panicked Jews were trapped and could not escape being caught (see photo below).

Access staircase at Roerstraat 15 and 17, Rivierenbuurt
Source: David Kann, 26 October 2007

The buildings, streets and waterways of the Rivierenbuurt might have appeared well-ordered and beneficial for the well-being of their residents in peacetime. However, despite the local death rate being similar to the rest of the country, it is evident that the existing built environment of the district could be readily subverted by the Germans for more efficient means of conducting their persecution of its Jews. In the end, when theRivierenbuurt was finally liberated on the last day of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945, almost no Jews survived, apart from the very few that had managed to hide.

David Kann is a PhD researcher in the History Department at the University of Sheffield, focussing on Het Joodsche Weekblad (The Jewish Weekly) as an instrument of persecution in the Nazi Occupied Netherlands. David is a retired architect by profession and in 2017 completed a Master’s by Research thesis at Royal Holloway College, University of London 

Cover Image: Anne Frank memorial at Merwedeplein: the Rivierenbuurt’s most famous resident lived at no. 37 (on right) until she and her family went into hiding in the centre of the city.  Source: David Kann, 15 September 2016

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“Confederate Heritage Month” and the Memory of the American Civil War

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The history of the American Civil War is very much about memory and, in recent years, the construction and contestation of this memory has played out on social media platforms like Twitter. While this presents an opportunity for those who wish to promote dangerous or inaccurate historical myths, Twitter also provides a platform for historians to challenge historical inaccuracies. For the past few years, I’ve used Twitter to challenge one iteration of such mythmaking: Confederate Heritage Month.

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the rise of the southern revisionist history of the war––the Lost Cause––created the conditions that permit Americans to wave both the U.S. flag and the Confederate States of America’s battle flag. The celebration of the latter—a physical representation of slavery and treason—allows some to treat former Confederates as heroes and not members of a failed slavers’ insurrection. One example of such celebrations is “Confederate Heritage Month”, typically marked every April by several former secessionist states.

Slavery, despite secessionist states claiming it as the cause for their rebellion, has largely been removed from the narrative of the rebellion in these celebrations. Instead of discussing slavery and treason, many champion “states’ rights” and the alleged battlefield prowess of Confederate generals. Indeed, the Lost Cause began a purposeful skewing of history by defeated Confederates to recast the Confederacy as having fought a noble fight for states’ rights. It is important to remember that secessionist states left the Union for the right to own slaves. The Lost Cause also makes Southerners into victims of Northern aggression––which is of course a lie. This skewed narrative ultimately downplays the fact that the U.S. military won key battles and eventually brought the rebellion to its metaphorical knees.

Memory of the Civil War affords opportunities to defeat the Lost Cause. As some communities remove Confederate statues––most emplaced during America’s Jim Crow period––as a military historian, it is important for me to take on the myth of Confederate military prowess. Statues to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to name a few, present them as heroes, when in fact leaders such as these lost the pivotal battles to the U.S. Army and committed treason. Lee in particular is problematic as the aura of his supposed military genius is used to obscure his past as a brutal slave owner, who broke his oath to the United States to fight in the rebellion.

Confederate Heritage Month is a celebration of the American Civil War from deep within the Lost Cause. Since 1994, in former secessionist states––particularly Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and previously in Virginia––Confederate Heritage Month has celebrated those who fought for the Confederate States of America. State legislatures and leaders purposefully misconstrue the failed slavers’ rebellion as some glorious cause for freedom and states’ rights. In 2016, Mississippi celebrated that vile cause in April.

In 2016 after a conversation on Twitter, fellow historian B.J. Armstrong urged me to push back against Confederate Heritage Month by tweeting a Confederate defeat for each of April’s thirty days. As he accurately mentioned, there were plenty of defeats from which to choose. I accepted his challenge and what began as a simple, one-month only reminder that the Confederacy lost numerous battles, and ultimately the war, has now became a yearly ritual.

At this point I should note that I am an academically-trained historian of the Vietnam War. Yet, as a military historian, I take some joy is using battles to expose the myths surrounding the Confederacy. By spotlighting battles, I am able to demonstrate that the so-called Confederacy did not have better leadership, soldiers, or any lasting victory. Since 2016, I have dedicated myself to a yearly counter-celebration every April. I pair each day with a Confederate battlefield defeat. The first year I focused on Mississippi. I covered Georgia in 2017. In 2018, I changed things up by addressing how U.S. military installations are named after Confederates while listing a defeat. 2019 proved my most popular celebration as I paired Southerners who remained loyal to the United States with a Confederate military defeat.

The majority of the responses to my celebration are positive. Some fellow historians also now join in my challenging of the Lost Cause in April. Most of the negative responses, which are few, come from Neo-Confederates. Since Neo-Confederates are largely averse to academic responses to their feelings-as-arguments approach to understanding the Civil War, interactions with them are brief. In the end, although rife with sarcasm, I am producing educational content.

Tweets are a great way to deliver concise, accessible statement. And if, as Mississippi’s Republican Governor Tate Reeves recently proclaimed, Confederate Heritage Month is about learning lessons, then those lessons should include that the Confederacy led a traitorous rebellion against the United States, did so in the name of slavery, and was thoroughly defeated on the battlefield. The efforts of historians to correct the myths of the Confederacy remain far from over. Historians presented arguments against the existence of Confederate monuments in public spaces, resulting in the removal of some. Yet, Lost Cause symbols and rhetoric remain in the continued influence of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization and the continuance of Confederate Heritage Month in Mississippi.

Rob Thompson is a historian at the Army University Press. His book on pacification in the Vietnam War is forthcoming with Oklahoma University Press. He tweets at @DrRobThompson and his 2020 Confederate Heritage Month counter-celebration thread can be found here and you can find last year’s thread here.

Cover image: Lee Surrendered, Albany Journal, 10 Apr 1865.

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