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 Rather, it is the tension between a hegemonic narrative based on outdated sets of morality connected to ‘national glory’, and the lived realities of the descendants of the victims of this ‘glory’.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.
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.
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.
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