Flawed symbolism and controversial memory
At the beginning of this year, the Hungarian government announced plans for the building of a statue on Szabadság Tér, a square in central Budapest, in order to commemorate the victims of the 1944 German occupation. It is to be dedicated to both Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the conflict. Although it was meant to be finished on the 19 March, construction was delayed, and workers only arrived on 8 April to begin preparations.
No sooner had they done so, when about 150 protestors arrived and tore down the barriers surrounding the prospective building site. Although the idea of the monument itself might seem sound, there has been much controversy surrounding this topic. The plans, initiated by ruling party Fidesz, have been met by opposition from artists, historians, the liberal left wing, and the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz). Several different factors contribute to the controversial nature of this seemingly innocent subject.
Firstly, Fidesz’s anti-democratic methods are yet again reflected in the speed in which plans for a public memorial were pushed through. Public debate was shoved aside as flawed bureaucracy speedily approved the plans; another example of top-down governance. The disagreement ended in the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities completely backing out of the Holocaust memorial year organised by the government, citing irreconcilable differences. The alienation of Jewish organisations is a growing problem in Hungarian society, which has been magnified by this conflict.
However, the most interesting aspects of the statue lie within its flawed symbolism. It depicts the archangel Gabriel, helpless, innocent, and with broken wings, being attacked by the German eagle. It portrays Hungary as the guiltless victim of the occupation and the Holocaust, when in fact historical records indicate the opposite. Hungarian authorities played a significant role in the deportation of Hungarian Jews. The Germans themselves did not commit massacres in the country, and national authorities went above and beyond in implementing anti-Semitic laws and organising deportations.
This monument attempts to hide the responsibility of Hungarians themselves, who profited from the possessions of the deported. From these crimes, the country cannot be exonerated. The German eagle is another ambiguous symbol, for it can also represent Germany’s current coat of arms, as well as that of the Nazis. This memorial could not only be a window in time to the Nazi occupation, but a monument depicting a dangerous national psychology. Failure to take responsibility for the past, self-victimisation, and self-isolation are all phenomena prevalent in the current national landscape. To perpetuate these in a time of standoff between Orbán and the European Union is most certainly perilous.
Such a controversial memorial, with such a flawed message, does little to ease the social and political disturbance within Hungarian society.
Hanna Kereszturi is a second year undergraduate studying Russian and International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania.