Monday, July 20, 2009
A House of Terror
In some of the ugliest decades of the twentieth century, Number 69 Andrassy utca in Budapest, Hungary served a nasty series of occupants: Hungarian fascists, the Gestapo, and the Communist secret police. A museum in such a building would be a great place to meditate on thugs of the left and right and the twists and turns of Hungary's history. Instead, the "House of Terror" museum is a living example of some of the more disturbing beliefs of the Hungarian right today: that Hungary has been uniquely wronged among the nations of the world, that it has never been fairly compensated for its suffering, and that the greatest threats to Hungary come from the left.
Hungary, like other countries of Central and Eastern Europe today, is very much in a conservative and nationalistic mood. Some of this can be blamed on the impact of the Great Recession, but the bitter, xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies of Hungarian conservatives predate the current economic crisis. And they are very much on display at the House of Terror.
The House of Terror formally criticizes totalitarians of the right and left. It also recognizes the deaths of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust at the hands of both the Hungarian Arrow Cross and German Nazis.
Nevertheless, the deaths of the Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz take place "off camera," so to speak. Hungary in World War II is presented as a nation trying to avoid being swept into the Nazi orbit. In a museum that is deeply emotional in its presentation, you don't sense much anguish over Hungary's own anti-Semites or the presence of Hungarian troops alongside the German forces that invaded the Soviet Union.
The House of Terror saves its greatest anger for the period of communist rule in Hungary. Touring the dungeons and execution chamber in base of the museum made me angry, too.
But what disturbed me about the museum is its sense of unresolved grievances: enduring resentment at the reduction of Hungary under the Treaty of Trianon after World War I, deep suspicion of anyone on the left, and a sense of grievance and victimization that can't be easily addressed.
My best hope is that someday, the borders in Central Europe will mean so little that Hungarians from Hungary proper and from Romania can meet without a fuss and forget about old woes. Until that happy day, the anger that pervades the House of Terror will fuel not a healthy desire for democracy, but a bitter politics of suspicion and revenge.