Heroes, Shoes, and Bullet Holes

Budapest abounds in statues of leaders and heroes on horseback. In the precincts of the Parliament, the statues commemorate both actual leaders and a romantic call to liberation and patriotism. Some of the fervor resulted from Hungary’s failed revolution of 1848, suppressed by the imperial armies of Russia and Austria. By the late 1860s Hungary joined with Austria in the Dual Monarchy, but it’s status was like that of a younger brother. Such a position could easily have led to a greater emphasis on military fervor. The Revolutionary moment passed and Hungary fully committed itself to the Austrian empire. For the first half of the 20th century, Hungary chose the wrong sides of history; such choices may well add to attempts to burnish of the past.

The statue of Count Andrassy, a major political figure in Hungary and then in the Dual Monarchy, guards the approaches to the Parliament building.

A few blocks away from the edifice to heroic service is a more humane, and more devastating monument to Hungary’s more recent past.  Along the Danube is an installation of shoes, set permanently onto the banks.

The shoes belonged to Jewish internees and prisoners, native Hungarians who were herded to the river bank in 1944 by Hungarian paramilitary, shot, and then dumped into the river.  While Hungary had a long history of anti-semitism and allied itself with Germany in WWII, it tried to back away from Hitler’s embrace when the course of the war was obvious.  In 1944, Hitler’s armies invaded Hungary, giving rise to a different form of patriotic fervor, this one devoted to perpetuating Hungary’s own holocaust. Coming so late in the war when the outcome was beyond doubt, such a gesture seems particularly brutal.

In front of the Parliament is another monument, but one that is less dramatic. This year marks the 60th anniversay of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union.  It was an event I think I remember from news headlines, but barely understood at the time.  The memorial first appears as a set of nondescript walls that mark an entrance into an underground space, much like entrances to the many parking garages in the city.  The side walls are punctured  with real or simulated bullet holes.

The underground space memorializes the men and women who took to the streets in a futile attempt to resist Soviet domination.  Videos display classic examples of urban guerrillas running after or away from tanks.  And the tanks are shooting.  I thought of the non-shooting tanks in Tiananmen Square, a more controlled authoritarian response, but one that still insured the suppression of inchoate desires for political liberty.  I am tempted to admire the 1956 rebellion, but I found the juxtaposition of the two different monuments unsettling.  Were the fighters in 1956 a different generation, or were they able to forget their own past?

Some Hungarians do remember. Several blocks away in a public park we came across an unusual stage of political theatre.  The German and Hungarian governments had recently collaborated to erect a statue honoring the Hunagarians who had been killed by the Germans in WWII.  To some Hungarians this monument is a white-washing of a particularly nasty moment, one that undercuts any pretense of heroic resistance to German occupation.  The counter-demonstrators have lined the street with an exhibit of shoes and suitcases suggesting other holocaust reminders.  They have set up a line of barbed wire, surely a deliberate reminder, for people to hang images, photos, statements to remind Hungarians that their past must be recognized, not glossed over.  

A small cluster of demonstrators is on site all day, and each day in the evening they stage an open discussion of what the monuments to heroism really mean.

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