Budapest’s glorious setting astride the Danube, its beautiful architecture and fantastic cultural life belie a simple truth: this is a city that has witnessed true horrors. While its history is stuffed full of turmoil and violence, like most of Europe, Budapest’s mid-20th century history is a litany of monumental barbarism. The seeds of which were planted centuries earlier, only bearing their terrible fruit in the 1940s.
There are regular reminders of these horrors across Budapest. Whether the Second World War or the Communist repression that followed it, Budapest wears its history on its sleeve. However, not all memorials to 20th century conflict are well received. Especially when they are part of attempts by Viktor Orban’s thuggish government to rewrite history, in nationalist overtones that are a bit too reminiscent of that earlier history for comfort.
In Liberty Square, close to Parliament, is an ugly (politically and aesthetically) statue to victims of the Second World War. It’s controversial because people see it as an attempt by the Fidesz government to distort Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. Like the Polish government before it, they’re trying to obscure the very active role of both citizens and government in the deaths of more than 600,000 Jews during the German occupation of 1944-45.
The Nazis didn’t occupy Hungary at the start of the Second World War, they formed an alliance with the more than willing Hungarian government instead. In 1940, Hungary joined the Axis and its armies participated in the invasion of Russia. Only in March 1944, when the German military was in full retreat and defeat was inevitable, did the Hungarian government attempt to end its pact with the Nazis. Hitler ordered Hungary occupied.
Despite being subject to racial laws modelled on the Nürnberg Laws, Hungarian Jews had largely been ‘protected’ from the Holocaust. The Nazi occupation established ghettos and deportations to death camps began. In only a year, some 437,000 Jews would be deported and murdered. It’s said that trains ran day and night from Budapest to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Yet, there were only 150 Germans in charge of this task.
Without the full cooperation of the Hungarian government and tens of thousands of its citizens, it would have been impossible to organise mass murder. Cooperate they did, the entire apparatus of state was put to work. The deportations continued until the Soviet army liberated Hungary in early 1945. Rich in irony, in the same park stands a memorial to the Soviet ‘liberators’, as well as to former US President, Ronald Reagan, slayer of the communism dragon.
Nearby is a far more poignant memorial. Along the Danube are sixty pairs of iron shoes that tell a heartbreaking story. In late 1944, the fascist Arrow Cross came to power in Hungary and began mass executions of Jews and others in Budapest. Thousands were brought to the Danube and shot. Their bodies dumped into the freezing waters which, contemporary observes reported, ran red with blood.
We walked through the former Jewish ghetto, visiting two of the city’s synagogues, to reach the House of Terror, which tells the story of this journey into madness in grim detail, often using contemporary film. It’s a haunting experience, especially the descent into the cellar where the torture cells and hanging post are still found. A lift takes you into the bowls of the building as an audio recording explains the terrible history of this building.
The museum also tells the story of the post-war period, the Russian occupation and the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. But there is another story, one I’d not heard before, it tells of the terrible fate of ethnic Germans living in Hungary following the liberation of the country. Around a half a million ethnic Germans were persecuted, striped of their rights, had lands confiscated and were ultimately expelled.
Ethnic Germans had lived here for centuries, many were encouraged to settle the land after the Ottoman Turks were defeated in 1686 – this diaspora was one of the Nazis’ main arguments for their territorial claims in Eastern Europe. Ethnic Germans would pay the price for their real or imagined complicity in Nazi crimes. Tens of thousands were sent to Russia and East Germany as slave labourers, many more were expelled to West Germany, a country they’d never previously set foot in.