I have been so preoccupied with the election results that I have neglected the recent tug-of-war between the Orbán government and a small group of people who desperately want to prevent the erection of a monument to commemorate the “occupation” of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944.
The monument depicts Hungary in the guise of the Archangel Gabriel as an innocent victim of German aggression when, in fact, Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. By extension, the present Hungarian government puts the blame for the Hungarian Holocaust entirely on Germany, although they do admit that some civil servants shamefully collaborated with the commandos of Adolf Eichmann. But the Hungarian government is not to be blamed because, with the occupation, Hungary lost its sovereignty. Most historians who are experts on the subject, inside and outside of Hungary, see it differently. So does the Hungarian Jewish community, whose representatives have been trying to have a dialogue with Viktor Orbán: they proposed more appropriate ways to remember the seventieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. At the end of February there was a short reprieve in the “war of words” between Orbán and the Jewish community when Orbán promised to postpone the erection of the monument and offered to engage in a dialogue sometime after the Easter holidays.
But then came the election, whose results Viktor Orbán described as a resounding victory, and he was again full of energy. Two days after the election workmen appeared on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square) and started building a barrier around the designated site of the monument. Soon enough activists gathered and swore they would take it down. And indeed, in the morning the workmen constructed the wall and in the afternoon the demonstrators took it down. By the second day the demonstrators had the right kind of equipment to do quite a professional job disassembling the barrier. By yesterday, the barrier had gone up six times and come down six times. Someone compared the situation to the famous Hungarian/Romanian folk ballad in which the walls that are built one day by the masons at the Fortress of Deva/Déva are destroyed by the next morning.
While this was going on, about 20 policemen stood idly by until April 14, when several of the organizers were ordered to appear at the police station and charged with defacement of property. The defacement consisted of using spray paint to write messages on the canvas that covered the metal barrier. Included among the people so charged were Zoltán Lovas, a newspaper man; Fruzsina Magyar, wife of Imre Mécs who as a young man was condemned to death after the failed revolution in 1956; and Alice Fried, a Holocaust survivor, whose “graffiti” read: “I survived the Shoa. I still want to live!” Since then Imre Mécs, who “willfully” wrote messages on the canvas, was also charged.
Meanwhile tourists keep inquiring what’s going on and the participants tell them that “the government wants to erect a Nazi monument and the people are protesting.” Of course, it would be far too complicated to explain to these people what is at stake here. The game of erecting and taking down the barrier will go on for a while, but meanwhile the foundation for the enormous statue of Archangel Gabriel is being built. Yes, it must stand just as ordered by the imperious Viktor Orbán. His announced deadline is May 1.
Opponents say that as soon as Viktor Orbán and his government are gone this statue will join the statues erected during the Rákosi and Kádár periods, which are now in a kind of statue cemetery in Memento Park. Others are certain that the new monument will have to be guarded day and night because it is likely that opponents will deface this monument that they find so objectionable.
The English-language media doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of what’s going on in the heart of Budapest. I discovered only one opinion piece, by András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador in Washington, who finds Viktor Orbán “deaf to the uproar by the Jewish community and other decent Hungarians. He fails to show leadership and magnanimity. He is missing the opportunity to behave like a statesman.” Statesmanship? Magnanimity? From Viktor Orbán?
By contrast, the German press has been covering the story of the monument from the beginning. After all, Germany is implicated in this story. But the Germans, unlike the Hungarians, faced up to their own past and were ready to take the blame. They also know, as do most historians, that the Germans had eager accomplices in the Hungarian Holocaust. German public radio had a segment on the controversy, “Proteste gegen Nazi-Bezatsungsdenkmal.” Yes, the description of it as a Nazi monument is spreading. In it the journalist responsible for the text accurately described the situation that awaited the German troops in Hungary. Junge Welt ran an article entitled “Orbán in the role of the victim.” Perhaps the writer who claimed that Hungarians never quite got over the fact that they lost World War II is right. Seventy years after the fact. It would be high time to do so, but self-examination is impossible as long as the Hungarian government prevents any kind of honest look at Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.