Public Memory & Public Squares in Budapest

The squares (or tér) of Budapest are beautiful to stroll through but also provide the visitor with lessons in Hungarian history. What is most interesting about this history is not just that it has changed over time, but that this change is sometimes visible in the same square. Americans are currently debating whether to remove Confederate monuments  and change the names of buildings that honor historical figures who owned slaves or profited by them, or perpetrated racist government policies. Similar debates have long occurred in Hungary, although the issues are different.

Not surprisingly, regime changes in Hungary have accounted for many such changes to the monuments and memorials that help create and reinforce public memory. The big monument in Heroes Square featured several Habsburgs when it was unveiled in the 1890s, but they were unceremoniously removed after WWI and replaced by Hungarians. (Oops, I stand corrected, it was actually after WWII that the Habsburgs were removed. Thanks to József for correcting me.) The communist regime after WWII removed some statues glorifying Hungarian heroes and erected their own heroic “proletariat” versions, some of which currently reside on the outskirts of Budapest in a place called Memento Park, or simply Statue Park. A statue of Josef Stalin was erected near Heroes Square in 1951 and toppled just five years later by the revolutionaries of 1956. Today that spot is marked by a memorial to the heroes of 1956. Stalin’s boots, all that remain of his statue, live on at Statue Park.

In some cases the same monument can be redefined. My favorite example of this is the Hungarian statue of liberty, or Szabadság Szobor, on Gellért Hill. This statue of the goddess of liberty bearing a palm leaf can be seen from all over Budapest. It was originally erected in 1947 to symbolize the liberation of Hungary by the Soviet Army. Rather than destroy it after the demise of the communist government, the Hungarians removed some of the more socialist statues at the base and reinterpreted the goddess as now symbolizing their new liberation from communism.

Szabadsag Szobor (Statue of Liberty), Budapest
Szabadsag Szobor (Statue of Liberty), Budapest

Two spots of particular interest for students of public memory, commemoration, and history are Kossuth Lajos Tér, in front of the Hungarian Parliament, and the nearby Szabadság Tér. Kossuth Tér recently went through a massive renovation to remove traffic and make it a pedestrian area. The statuary was also renovated. A monument to Kossuth, hero of the 1848 revolution against the Hapsburgs, and other supporters of the revolution, had been erected by the Horthy regime in 1927. The communists after WWII decided there were too many aristocrats in this group, so they removed this monument and put up a sort of social realist Kossuth leading the proletariat in revolt. This monument survived the demise of communism, but very recently has been replaced with a replica of the original. Some critics suggest that this is part of the current government’s efforts to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. (For more on the changing monuments of Kossuth tér, see this.)

The communist regime also removed a statue of Count Gyula Andrassy, a foreign policy advisor and architect of the WWI alliance with Germany, replacing it with a statue of poet Attila József, who had some leftist credentials. The recent renovation put Andrassy back in place, and moved József to a spot facing the Danube, rather fittingly as he wrote of the Danube in his poetry. He is in fact one of Hungary’s most well-known and beloved poets. He attended the University of Szeged and was kicked out for his revolutionary poetry, which was apparently not seen as suitable for a future teacher. They subsequently named the university for József in 1962, in a delicious irony that he was didn’t live to see, as he died in 1937 (by suicide or accident, depending on the source). If you are interested, you can read some of his poetry here. The university was again renamed the University of Szeged, however, in 2000, more’s the pity. I love this statue of Attila József, contemplating the Danube.

I also love the statue of Nagy Imre just off Kossuth Tér. He stands on a bridge, staring rather pensively at the Parliament he led for such a brief time, before his execution for his part in the 1956 revolution.  Kossuth tér also includes the excellent underground memorial/museum to the martyrs and heroes of that revolution, which I discussed in my Nov. 7 post.

By far the most interesting conversations and conflicts over public memory, to my mind, are in Szabadság (Liberty) tér. On one side of this square sits the U.S. Embassy. Almost directly in front of it is a huge Soviet monument to the Red Army soldiers who died in the liberation of Budapest. You might ask why this is still around. The story I have heard is that the USSR extracted a promise from the Hungarians to leave this monument up, in exchange for the Russians taking care of the graves of the many Hungarian soldiers who died in Russia. To make things even more interesting, in 2011 a statue of Ronald Reagan was added to the mix. He strides along, seemingly heading toward the Soviet monument; perhaps he is going to “tear down” this monument? The picture on the right captures all three: Reagan to the far left (looking like one of the pedestrians), the Soviet monument on the right,  and the U.S. Embassy in the center (yellow building).

And that, believe it or not, is only one of the debates going on in this square. The more controversial one surrounds a recently raised WWII monument called a “Memorial for the Victims of the German Occupation.” The government calls it a memorial to all the Hungarian victims of the Nazis. The memorial is dramatic, depicting the German eagle swooping down on poor Hungary, symbolized by the Archangel Gabriel. This memorial has been very controversial from its inception. Critics of the Orban government claim that the monument is an attempt to downplay the Hungarian complicity in the murder of some 600,000 Hungarian Jews, by shifting all the blame to the German Nazis. The government simply says that it is memorializing all the victims of the German occupation, which included both Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians. Looking at this monument, one would never know that Hungary had allied itself with Germany in the war and had its own “Arrow Cross” (Hungary’s Nazi party). This monument was so controversial that it was completed at night, with a police guard standing by. Protesters have been presenting a counter message here ever since the monument was erected. There are regular protests, as well as signs asking P.M. Orban to “Tear down your Monument.” And there are the shoes, pictures, letters, and other mementos placed by survivors and family members of the Jews of Budapest deported in 1944 and murdered in the Holocaust. These, along with stones bearing the names of victims, form an eloquent and moving counter-memorial in direct dialogue with the monument. If you are in Budapest, do not miss this example of public monument as public debate. This monument and its counter-memorial provide evidence, it seems, that Szabadság tér is aptly named, as competing speech abounds here.

Finally, the shoes at Szabadság tér bring to mind another eloquent memorial to the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust, one which gives the lie to any attempt to shift blame wholly to the Germans. In 1944-45, the Arrow Cross rounded up many Budapest Jews and others deemed undesirable, ordered them to strip at the edge of the Danube, and shot them, letting them fall into the river. Director Can Togay came up with the idea for a memorial, and sculptor Gyula Pauer brought it to life in the “Shoes along the Danube Promenade” in 2005. (For more on both the history and the memorial, see this.) Walk along the Danube near Parliament and you will come across this memorial featuring dozens of rusted iron 1940s style shoes, interspersed with pebbles, flowers, wreaths, and mementos. It is an incredibly moving experience to walk here among the “abandoned” shoes.

2 thoughts on “Public Memory & Public Squares in Budapest”

  1. Hi,

    First let me tell you, I like your thoughts – it is always interesting to take a look through somebody else’s eyes and see your environment from a different angle.

    Please, allow me just one clarification: the Habsburg statues were relocated after WWII, not WWI. Even though the Horthy régime declared the institution of the governor instead of a king and they stoped the Habsburg restoration, no statues were removed by the goverment. This “bad manner” came from the Soviet Union – first appeared during the “red” revolution (Tanácsköztársaság) in 1919, and later after the communist takeover after WWII.
    That is why when the government decided to refurbish Kossuth square in 2014, they decided to restore the “landscape before 1944”. After the first indignations soon turned out, that this decision related only to the statues – the square is refreshingly new. The reason that they decided to stick to the original statues was not artistic or poitical, but simply the public law. The only regimé who changed the statues without asking the citizens was the communist one. That was the reason, that after the fall of the communism, only – some of – the communist statues were removed. And that happened in Kossuth square, as well: the copies of the original statues were erected. Not because they were good or beloved (e.g. Tisza István is a very controversial politician), but because these sculptures were not forced by any dictators or régimes.

    1. Dear József, Thanks for your comments and your correction regarding the Hapsburg statues. I was told WWI on an earlier trip by a tour guide (or perhaps I just misunderstood). I will correct that error!

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