Memories are made of… what?
In Hungary today, the question is an urgent one, with institutions under the influence of the hardline right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán acting assertively to inculcate a sentimental nationalism that whitewashes the messy history of the country since World War II. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Budapest today is the House of Terror, a multimedia museum founded in 2002, at the end of Orbán’s first premiership. The museum presents, in an impressionist mélange of video displays, artifacts and sound effects, a narrative experience that relates and conflates Hungary’s complicated relationships with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as ostensibly parallel cases of occupation by unwelcome oppressors. There is some truth to this Orbán-era take on history—Hitler did send tanks into Hungary in 1944 and ordered the deportation of a large portion of Hungary’s Jewish population. Yet, there is also revisionism, because the Hungarian Army had fought as an ally of the Third Reich for three years prior to that, and the Hungarian government shipped more than 300,000 Jews to the death camps with efficiency. The idea that throughout the war the Hungarians were the victims of Nazi machinations is risible. The proposition that the Hungarians’ subsequent subjugators, the Soviets, were precisely parallel to the Nazis does not bear close scrutiny, either
I took a tour of the House of Terror last week, while in Budapest for the dunaPart3 Hungarian Showcase of Contemporary Performing Arts. Of the many arts experiences I had in a week’s time—seeing plays, dance works, musical performances and panels on Hungarian arts—none struck me as so boldly imaginative as the House of Terror. As you enter, you’re greeted with the droning, pulsating sound of hard-core house music, and you see twin sets of video monitors, one showing montages of goose-stepping Nazis, the other showing Stalin inspecting the Red Army. In another space, two mannequins have been set up on a rotating platform, back to back—one in Nazi uniform, one in Red Army gear. The mannequins spin around to demonstrate that the Fascists and the Soviets were interchangeable, the same evil in different garb. At the end of the tour, the PA system plays a pretty, lilting old song in Hungarian, to leave departing visitors pining for the simple glories of the old heroic country that the Nazis and Soviets repressed and that, it goes without saying, Orbán is restoring today.