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26 October, 2011  ▪  Oleksiy Ananov

House of Terror

A museum by this name opened in Budapest in 2002 to tell about two tragic periods in Hungarian history – the repressive rules of the Nazis and of the Soviets

The Ukrainian Weekc ontinues its series of articles about how post-Soviet countries and former socialist bloc states said goodbye to their communist past. We wrote about Georgia’s Museum of Occupation in issue 30, the Czech Museum of Communism and the Lithuanian Museum of Genocide Victims. This instalment is about the House of Terror in Budapest.

Psychologists say that a tendency to feel victimized and lament your own misfortunes and losses is a destructive and even morbid personal trait. However, it is the suffering and hard experiences of entire nations that again and again become a key element in historical and political identification. The Hungarians consider the double terror their country endured in the 20th century – Nazi and Soviet rule – the most significant part of their historical re-evaluation. This conclusion is suggested by a visit to one of Budapest’s newest and most popular museums – the House of Terror.

HISTORY AND POLITICS

It is hard to miss this building on Andrássy Avenue in the heart of the Hungarian capital: the pale grayish edifice looks like a slightly tarnished old photo in a colossal, mournful black frame stretching from the sidewalk all the way to the roof. The frame is a black entablature, with the huge letters T E R R O R printed on it, that wraps around the entire building. The museum was opened in 2002. Incidentally, this is also the year when the entire architectural landscape of this iconic Budapest boulevard was announced a World Heritage Site. But the museum has a somewhat longer history.

In 2000, the Public Foundation for the Research of Central and East European History and Society purchased the building to set up a museum. The choice fell on this particular piece of real estate because during and after the Second World War it housed the special services of the Arrow Cross Party (a Hungarian national socialist party) and later the State Security Directorate (the Hungarian KGB). The cells in the basement offer a glimpse at the real conditions in which political prisoners were tortured.

It seems Ukraine passed the peak of exposing Soviet crimes and restoring historical justice in the 1990s. It is no longer fashionable to speak about dissidents, while Stalin’s image is, on the contrary, being gradually whitewashed in view of Russia’s new policy. After all, these topics are now turning into new trump cards in political struggles and fierce televised debates. But for Hungary, historical revision remains relevant even today: the House of Terror was launched in 2002, and a new, government-funded memorial to victims of the repressive regimes will rise in a different part of Budapest in a couple of years. Even though the press has noted that some pages of the recent past are presented here from a current political, rather than scientific, standpoint, House of Terror Director Maria Schmidt rebuts the criticism with one remark: “Is there anything in history not linked to politics?”

DRAMA AND STAGNATION

At the beginning of the exhibit, visitors watch a film about how Hungary lost two-thirds of its lands in the 20th century as a dramatic symphonic suite plays in the background. Our neighbors do not intend to suppress traces of imperial nostalgia, while at the same time conveniently omitting the fact that their country was a Nazi ally in the Second World War. They begin the story of terror with March 16, 1944, when the Wehrmacht troops and SS units entered Hungary. Only an accompanying article reveals that the country preserved its sovereignty and even relative social peace in 1941-44. There is only a brief reference to the 200,000 Hungarian soldiers on the eastern front. The Nazi occupation lasted for only six months, and the Soviets came in the fall of 1944. However, a puppet government led by Ferenc Szálasi was set up in the meantime, and his Arrow Cross Party unleashed real terror in the country. It persecuted political dissidents and the Jews. The latter were exiled, and many of them were taken to Germany and Austria where they were pressed into forced labor or sent to concentration camps. Historians note, however, that the Budapest ghetto survived the war with fewer losses than the Jewish reservations in many other occupied European cities.

You have to give the creative minds behind the House of Terror their due for a well-designed exhibit. Clear, vivid and convincing images often require no further explanation. All one's senses are engaged as music, documentaries and theater lights, which suddenly pick a Soviet ZiL truck out of the darkness, create a credible atmosphere: dissident kitchens here, the revolutionary storm of 1956 there, and so on. One room is a veritable maze whose walls are made of packs of lard, the first “delicacy” that became available to Hungarians in the difficult and hunger-stricken 1950s. Another room tells the story of GULAG – the carpet on the floor is a map of the USSR showing the locations of prisons and labor camps where Hungarians were kept. Some of these are in Ukraine: Sevastopol, Mykolaiv, Kramatorsk and even the Darnytsia Camp. After all, many Kyivites know that the old two-storied buildings in the Socialist Town were built by Hungarian POWs.

A big part of the exhibit may even evoke a certain nostalgia in many visitors – the everyday conditions of the 1950s, such as furniture, crockery, books, pictures and placards, sports marches and dancing tunes, are recreated here in great detail. Sometimes they even obscure the menacing emanations from the study of a security service investigator or a room reserved for Soviet counsellors. However, there are wiretapping devices and interrogation rooms here and a courtroom filled from floor to ceiling with the personal cases of convicts. (In 1945-56, a third of the adult Hungarian population had to stand before court.) Yet the most profound impression is created by the authentic prison cells preserved in the basement. There is an old isolation cell here – a 50cm-wide cement-walled box where a person can only stand. Another torture chamber has such a low ceiling that a person can only fit when standing on his knees.

The culmination of the museum’s exposition and the entire historical period is the Hungarian revolution of 1956. A photo shows a barricade and a singed tricolor over it in the center, strongly reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. The socialist coat of arms was, however, cut out of it – different times, a different country, but the essence is the same.

The subsequent, non-Stalinist period in Hungary’s national history was largely one of “peaceful construction.” Conseuently, the exhibit skips 35 years, and the next thing you see is video footage of the Soviet troops’ withdrawal from Hungary in 1991.

TERROR ON A TEACUP

It appears that this type of account of totalitarian experience targets primarily a foreign audience. Indeed, there are more foreign tourists in the museum’s rooms than locals. Moreover, museum workers say that brochures in English are in greater demand than those written in Hungarian. This is an example of how the West’s interest in all fragments of the Soviet epoch – authentic or faked, even crudely so – can be turned into money.

The museum has its own store. Museum stores usually sell something in the category of smart, nice or fun. The topic of terror is hardly conducive to jokes, but the entrepreneurial Hungarian minds found a surprising touch of black humor: a collection of candles in the form of Lenin’s and Stalin’s busts catches the eye among the ordinary assortment of books, teacups and pens.

The last room has two memorial walls: photos of victims of political repressions on one and those of their persecutors on the other. On both sides you see Hungarian names. Ordinary faces are also on both walls – these are people whose nature combines good and evil, a sense of justice and terror. There is also an ability to learn from historical mistakes.

FACT FILE

The House of Terror (Terror Háza in Hungarian) was opened in February 2002 under the center-right government of Viktor Orbán. The internal design, the final look of the museum’s exhibition hall and the external façade were all designed by architect Attila F. Kovács. Much of the information and the exhibits are in Hungarian, but each room has a bilingual information sheet, in English and Hungarian. Audio guides in English and German are also available. Tickets cost HUF 1,800 (full price) and HUF 900 (discount price), which is UAH 72 and 36, respectively.


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