Along a relatively quiet road in Budapest is one of the city’s many squares. Here dozens of photographs, flowers and religious symbols line one street, resembling a hastily gathered memorial to the victim of some traffic accident. But this is not to mark to death of an recent victim, nor is it in fact a memorial per se. This is a protest, and a bitter reminder of the anger shown by many Hungarians towards what stands on this street.
The Szabadsag Square monument was erected in 2014 on the 70th anniversary of Hungary’s occupation by Nazi Germany. The monument, according to officials, is meant as a memorial to those killed during the occupation, including around 450,000 Jews exterminated under Nazi orders.
But the way in which the monument reinterprets Hungarian history has inspired outrage in many, who see it as a twisted of fact.
The statue depicts two main figures, two cultures pitted against each other. Hungary is represented by an angel; innocent, peaceful and resolute. Above the angel the ‘German eagle’ of Nazism spreads its wings in a show of evil, inhuman aggression.
The statue shows Hungary as the victim here – the innocent; corrupted and attacked by evil. And it is this interpretation that many claim is a falsification of history.
Under Nazi occupation Budapest’s sizeable Jewish community was confined to a controlled ghetto, where disease, death and much suffering plagued the population until, under Nazi orders, thousands were removed and exterminated. The smaller populations existing outside of the capital city were taken to death camps outside of the country and many gay, gypsy and anti-Nazi individuals were also killed.
What this statue glosses over then is the active role that Hungarian authorities at the time took in these deaths.
The occupied state did not resist their occupiers but instead followed out orders to establish a ghetto, to later deport Jews and to rely information to German authorities. Hungary, like many occupied regions, was complicit in their orders and worked diligently towards the deaths of nearly half a million of its own citizens.
Authorities were fully aware at the time of the controversy the statue would cause and it appears there is still little-to-no support for the message it portrays from the public. At the time of planning protests led to delays and the final product was only finished late one night, under police watch, with no unveiling ceremony. It would appear that the government, aware of the backlash, wanted to sneak out their statue with as little fuss as possible.
These actions at the time raise questions over the government’s intention towards the statue. Although there are several conflicting interpretations behind the monument’s ‘true meaning’ it would appear that in some way authorities were looking to establish a retelling of history, that absolved them of guilt long after the events were forgotten.
Budapest is not a stranger to controversial statues, from the larger-than-life Ronald Reagan that marches proudly towards a better (communist-free) future, to the Soviet-era war memorial that remains proactively close to the US embassy. None, however, have ever faced such an angry and long-remaining reaction such as this.
“It is a monument to the arrogance of the Hungarian government”, claimed one opposition politician at an organised protest days after the monument was finished.
But the anger did not end with these protests. The statue has been the ongoing target for graffiti and egg attacks. Even six months after the statue was finished many are still outraged that its message is allowed to remain.
Ongoing protests have led to the establishment of a permanently changing alternative monument that now runs alongside the statue. Part memorial, part celebration, part protest and part information centre; flowers, photographs, slogans, art and historical accounts line the street in an attempt to tell the true story of Budapest’s Nazi history.
What remains now, is perhaps in some way a more fitting tribute. On one side we see the official retelling, a skewered misinterpretation of history. And on the other we see truth, vigilance and an ongoing effort to ensure that the true story of this horrible era of history is never forgotten, never suppressed, and never changed.
Six months later the question now is how long this monument will remain. Will it ever change, or will its message go on to reshape the perceptions of a country whose government has yet to come to terms with the blood on their hands?
Tom Ana is a charity worker and blogger from England with an interest in human rights and LGBT issues. He is the editor of Euroclash!.