The winners will be those who can better understand the past, and who can come to the right conclusions more swiftly and more courageously. —Viktor Orbán, Hungarian prime minister, July 25, 2015
A stone’s throw from Budapest’s majestic Gothic revival parliament building, Freedom Square teems with monuments attesting to Hungary’s turbulent 20th century. Dominating the north side of the plaza is a giant obelisk constructed by the Soviet Union and dedicated to the city’s Red Army liberators. A few paces south one finds a statue of Imre Nagy, the executed hero of Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet revolt, standing on a bridge looking forlornly on parliament. At the southern end of the square, outside a Calvinist church, stares a bust of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the authoritarian regent under whose reign Hungary passed the first anti-Semitic law of 20th-century Europe in 1920, allied with the Axis powers, and deported some half-million Jews to Auschwitz in the largest and swiftest mass transfer of the Final Solution. In the middle of it all, a bronzed Ronald Reagan walks briskly toward the nearby U.S. embassy. With its abundant memorials, this one plaza commemorates the grand sweep of Europe’s most influential 20th-century ideologies: communism, nationalism, fascism, and democracy.
On the Sunday morning of July 20, 2014, police cordoned off Freedom Square while construction workers put the finishing touches on an addition to this urban tableau already brimming with historical tributes: the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation. From the moment its construction was announced, following an opaque artistic competition lacking public consultation, it had been the subject of heated dispute. Beginning with its very title, which labels the unimpeded movement of German soldiers onto friendly territory an “occupation,” the memorial absolves Hungarians of complicity in the Holocaust. Depicting the Archangel Gabriel (described in the plans as “the man of God, symbol of Hungary”) under attack from a sharp-clawed German imperial eagle, it portrays the Hungarian nation as a collective victim of Nazi predation. This distortion of history obscures both the specifically anti-Jewish nature of the Holocaust and the Hungarian state’s active collaboration in mass murder. Randolph Braham, professor emeritus at the City University of New York and himself a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, writes about the role played by Hungarian authorities in the crime: “With Horthy still at the helm and providing the symbol of national sovereignty, the approximately 200,000 Hungarian policemen, gendarmes, civil servants, and ‘patriotic’ volunteers had collaborated in the anti-Jewish drive with a routine and efficiency that impressed even the relatively few SS who had served as ‘advisers.’ ” So able and willing were the Nazis’ Hungarian accomplices that Adolf Eichmann, the SS official in charge of deporting the country’s Jews to the death camps, managed to oversee the gruesome task with just 200 Germans at his command.
Had the nationalist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán not spent the previous four years conducting a campaign of historical distortion regarding the country’s Holocaust history, one might be more charitable about its motives for constructing this monument. Through a set of government-sponsored historical institutes, publicly funded documentaries, revisions to school curricula, bestowal of state honors to extreme right-wing figures, and erections of public monuments and museum exhibitions, the Orbán administration has disseminated a narrative that minimizes Hungarian culpability in the extermination of some half-million Jews and rehabilitates Horthy’s reputation from that of opportunistic Nazi ally to selfless defender of national independence.
Opposition to this revisionist crusade reached a critical phase in January 2014, around the same time that plans for the occupation memorial were unveiled. After the director of a government-subsidized historical center phlegmatically referred to the 1941 deportations of Jews living under Hungarian authority as a “police action against aliens,” outraged leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community announced they would cease cooperation with the government on activities marking the 70th-anniversary Holocaust Remembrance Year. Orbán decided to postpone work on the monument until after national elections in April, at which point consultations on its design would resume. But just two days after his party, Fidesz, secured a landslide victory, Orbán reneged on his promise and workers returned to the construction site, which by then had to be patrolled by police to keep protesters at bay. In an open letter to Orbán, 30 members of the U.S. Congress stated that while “Hungary is an important ally and partner of the United States,” it should “build an appropriate memorial that tells the entire Hungarian story of the Nazi Occupation, not one that whitewashes the truth.” Orbán was unmoved. The Hungarian government completed its controversial memorial in the dead of night, slipping the bronze angel and eagle into the square disguised in metal foil.
Budapest’s Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation is distinguished not only by its revisionist message but also its vulgar design. Holocaust memorials tend to be solemn and subtly allegorical. Around the corner from the iconic Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s more accurately named Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe—2,711 black concrete stelae arranged in a mazelike pattern on a sloping plaza—immediately unsettles visitors with its figurative representation of the Holocaust’s unfathomable depth. Elsewhere in Budapest, “Shoes on the Danube Bank” displays 60 pairs of iron footwear fastened to the river’s stone embankment, marking the last standing place of Jews who, every day during the 1944-1945 winter, were ordered to take off their shoes before being shot by Arrow Cross militiamen, the Nazis’ Hungarian accomplices.
When a noted Hungarian art historian wrote a letter to Orbán questioning the occupation memorial’s meaning and artistic merit, the prime minister replied, “Didactic historical works of art, which were the norm in my youth, have more of a depressive impression on me.” This was a strange defense of the memorial, for it is nothing if not didactic. Indeed, it’s striking how a monument built by a government that claims for itself the exclusive legacy of Hungarian anticommunist resistance so much resembles a work of socialist realism. By obscuring Jewish victimhood entirely and ascribing total innocence to Hungarians and total evil to Germans, the memorial is as factually deceptive and politically exploitative as any Stalinist icon. Just as communists downplayed or ignored the anti-Semitic intent of the Holocaust in order to claim the Nazis’ victims as martyrs to the cause of “antifascism,” the Hungarian right asserts that all Hungarians were equal victims of a foreign-imposed tyranny. Characterizing opposition to the memorial as deriving from “the pub counter of cheap political pushing and shoving that is practically unavoidable these days,” Orbán implied that complaints about historical truth are in actuality fig leaves for domestic political opponents intent on delegitimizing his government abroad. After lecturing his correspondent that the “invaders” of Hungary were not “Nazis” but “Germans,” whose collective and eternal guilt the memorial appears to endorse through its symbolic use of the eagle that today appears on the German federal government escutcheon, Orbán avoided drawing a similar conclusion about Hungarian blameworthiness, stating that “it can hardly be disputed that Germany bears responsibility for what happened in Hungary after March 19, 1944. … We cannot bear a responsibility that is not ours to bear.”
If such a highly subjective claim as one insisting that Germany bears all responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust can “hardly be disputed” in Hungary, it’s only because the government has consecrated it in law. One of the first things Fidesz did after winning a parliamentary supermajority in 2010 was to rewrite the constitution. Today, the Preamble of the Fundamental Law of Hungary states:
We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the 19th day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.
By affirming that Hungary lost its “self-determination” the day German soldiers entered Budapest, the constitution pardons Hungarians and Hungarian institutions for what transpired over the proceeding 45 years. According to Hungarian historian Eva Balogh, Germany’s “occupation” of Hungary is better understood as “a troop movement within the territories of military allies” because Germany initially allowed Horthy to remain as head of state and left nearly all government functions in the control of Hungarian authorities. With no notable acts of official resistance and scarcely any German officers to oversee them, Hungarian police and gendarmerie rounded up hundreds of thousands of their fellow Jewish citizens and deported them to Auschwitz. Denying that the Hungarian state bears responsibility for this crime, Orbán admits only that individual officials—and not the Hungarian government—“collaborated,” a word choice implying that Hungary was an enemy, not an ally, of Nazi Germany.
Orbán’s defense of the occupation memorial was also notable for studiously dodging the fact that the main victims of the Nazis in Hungary, as everywhere else in Europe, were Jews. “The victims,” he wrote, “whether Orthodox, Christian, or without faith, became the victims of a dictatorship that embodied an anti-Christian school of thought”—essentially claiming that Christians were as much victims of the Nazis as were Jews, a word his letter does not use even once. Memorializing amorphous “victims of the German occupation” in this style, Braham writes, is a way to “generalize the Holocaust by homogenizing the losses of Jewry with those incurred by the military forces and the civilian population during the war. The equation of the martyrdom of armed soldiers, who died as heroes in the service of their country, and of Christian civilians, who were killed in the wake of the hostilities, with that of the Jews, who were murdered irrespective of their age or sex, is clearly politically motivated.” Orbán concluded his missive with this considered opinion: “From a moral perspective and with regard to the historical content of its system of allegories, this work of art is accurate and flawless,” a curious way to describe a morally and aesthetically repulsive piece of propaganda.
Immediately after the occupation memorial was finished—and presented to the public, unusually, without any public ceremony—a counter-display known as the “Living Memorial” sprang up just steps away along the opposite sidewalk. Flowers, candles, suitcases, and other personal items now cover the pavement in honor of Hungarian Holocaust victims. Black-and-white photographs of relatives lost at Auschwitz and laminated placards affixed to the metal bars of the guardrail alert passersby to the politicized abuse of history before them. It was here, in the summer of 2015, that the celebrated Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer led 1,000 people in singing the German and French national anthems, followed by those of Hungary and Slovakia—“coupling the anthems of peoples who for generations were pitted against each other as enemies, but today in the European Union live together in peace and cooperation.” When I visited Freedom Square one Friday evening about a month after Fischer’s recital, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor sat directly opposite the memorial addressing a small group of people. A rotating crew of citizens stood watch over the Living Memorial to prevent its defacement by neo-Nazis. I asked that evening’s attendant, a man who appeared to be in his late 50s, a gentile, why he was spending a beautiful Budapest summer night in what seemed like lonely, futile protest. “History is more complicated than this falsifying, simplifying monument,” he answered.
Second to Russia, no European country is manipulating its history for political purposes more egregiously than Hungary. In both places, rewriting the past is done with an eye to the future, as governments inculcate their citizenries with nationalism, irredentism, and intolerance and then marshal these attitudes in service of the state. The clashing historical narratives embodied by the dueling memorials of Freedom Square have engaged the wider public in a debate reaching far beyond the usual esoteric academic circles. As Hungary creeps further into authoritarianism, its revisionism has worrisome implications for Europe’s future.
Why does it matter if a country consciously lies about its past? Inculcating in future generations a litany of myths about national innocence, perpetual victimhood, and lost honor grants license to irresponsible and dangerous behavior. Today’s fight over memory politics in Hungary echoes the mid-1980s German Historikerstreit, or historians’ controversy. That dispute centered on whether the crimes of Nazi Germany were singular evils or comparable to other mass atrocities, in particular, those of Stalinism. The intellectual combatants of the Historikerstreit brought no new facts to bear but only argued over how to interpret what was already widely known. In the words of the German essayist Peter Schneider, so heated was the argumentation, so deeply did it impinge on Germany’s understanding of itself, that the fusillade of polemics in the feuilletons attracted “a level of curiosity among the general public normally aroused by photos of the British royal family in swimsuits.”
The opening salvo was an essay by the historian Ernst Nolte in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung titled “The Past That Will Not Pass: A Speech That Could Be Written but Not Delivered.” Citing the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann’s entreaty to world Jewry that it support Britain in its war effort against Nazi Germany, Nolte argued that “Hitler had good reasons to be convinced of his enemies’ determination to annihilate him much earlier than when the first information about Auschwitz came to the knowledge of the world.” In light of this “reaction born out of the anxiety of the annihilating occurrences of the Russian revolution,” Nolte contended, Auschwitz should be viewed primarily as a preemptive defense against Soviet “Asiatic barbarism,” rather than the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, other than the “sole exception of the technical process of gassing,” there was nothing unique about the Nazi mass murder. “Was not the ‘Gulag Archipelago,’” he asked, “more original than Auschwitz? Was not the ‘class murder’ by the Bolsheviks logically and factually prior to the ‘racial murder’ of the National Socialists?” Far from being sui generis, Nolte argued, the Holocaust was best understood as a defensive reaction to Bolshevism.
Nolte’s provocation intended to contextualize Nazism within the broad array of national crimes perpetrated throughout history. Nearly every major power, he argued, has gone through something like a “Hitler era.” Nolte’s error was to begin with a political goal (the assuagement of German guilt) and work backward from his conclusion. He hoped to restore national pride by popularizing a version of German history that sees nothing uniquely evil or exceptional about the Holocaust. Though he later insisted he wasn’t defending the Holocaust as a defensive response to Stalinist terror, he undermined his argument repeatedly with assertions such as his claim that Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union was a “preventive war.”
After much back and forth, Nolte and his confrères were soundly refuted in the court of German public opinion. Among Germans today, it is a consensus view that the Holocaust was a singular event and that Germany has a duty to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and impart it to future generations. Germans have so thoroughly imbibed the awful lessons of their history that their country is one of the more immune in Europe to far-right populism.
Hungary, by contrast, has undertaken no such reckoning. In the same way that Ernst Nolte wanted ordinary Germans to feel a straightforward patriotism, uncomplicated by guilt over the Nazi past, Viktor Orbán and Mária Schmidt wish to muddy the distinctions between victim and perpetrator in order to present a simplistic view of Hungarian history. Nolte’s complaint that preoccupation with the Holocaust served “the interests of the persecuted and their descendants in a permanent, privileged status” sounds indistinguishable from Schmidt’s allegation that the progeny of the victims of Hungarian fascism “would like to consider their ancestors’ tragic fate an inheritable and advantageous privilege.” It is inconceivable that a German chancellor today would express a desire to “preserve Germany for the Germans.” Yet this is precisely the sort of language, redolent of the 1930s, that Viktor Orbán uses today about Hungary. Convinced that Hungarians are perennial victims of global machinations—abetted by his “evil” domestic opponents—and unencumbered by comprehension of, or a sense of humility about, where heedless nationalism has taken his country in the past, Orbán feels emboldened to advance a chauvinist political agenda.
High in the Buda hills, a collection of Soviet-era monuments stares down on the capital below. Memento Park, as it’s called, is an open-air museum of communism’s sculptural detritus. Opened to the public in 1993, it features a collection of towering busts, sculptures, and memorials that once graced the streets and squares of Budapest. A giant bronze re-creation of Stalin’s boots—the only remaining part of a statue cut down by protestors during the 1956 uprising—sit atop the grandstand where party apparatchiks reviewed May Day parades. Spread out across the park stand a variety of works crafted in the highly expressive styles of socialist realism: elongated profiles of Marx and Engels that resemble stone heads from Easter Island; bas-relief Stakhanovites reaching joyously into the air; two giant, muscular comrades holding hands and staring confidently (and not a little homoerotically) into each other’s eyes. Sterling specimens of brutalist political kitsch, these monuments are also painful reminders of the historical mendacity and punishing ideological conformity compelled by the communist dictatorship. One day, we may hope, the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation will be uprooted from Freedom Square and transported to Memento Park, where it belongs.
Excerpted from The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age. Copyright © 2017 by James Kirchick. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.