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Wednesday, 18 May 2016 10:53

Why are statues in Hungary so controversial?

In an in-depth article, Dóra Ónody-Molnár explains the controversy around memorial statues in Hungary, and who is benefitting from it.


Matrjoska englishCartoon by Béla Weisz for Get the Trolls Out!

By Dóra Ónody-Molnár

On many occasions over the last few years, issues surrounding the placement, displacement or removal of statues and monuments in public places have found themselves on Hungary’s political agenda. The main ones are as follows:

Occupation Monument (WW2) on Freedom Square in Budapest

Without any prior consultations, in a decree dated on New Year’s Day 2013, the government ordered the erection of a memorial monument on Freedom Square to the victims of the German occupation. They allocated two and half months for its construction. The publication of the plans was met with virulent criticism from Jewish organizations, the opposition party, the liberal intelligentsia, as well as many historians. According to the plans, the government planned to erect a memorial in which the Hungarian state in 1944, depicted as the Archangel Gabriel, is shown as an innocent victim attacked by the Nazi empire, represented by an eagle. According to its critics, this perception of history, instead of facing historical facts, places sole responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust (the massacre of 550,000 to 600,000 Jews) on the Germans, while ignoring the active participation of both the Hungarian state and its citizenry in the looting and deportation of the Jewish population. Members of the government argued that the deportation of Jews never would have happened had it not been for the German occupation, and that this is what is represented by the memorial. In the end, the statue was “unveiled” without any ceremony whatsoever, under the cover of darkness in the night of July 20, 2014. A group formed in protest (the Eleven Emlékmű group) continues to demonstrate on Freedom Square against the monument to this very day.

Refurbishing of Kossuth Square (Budapest)

The area surrounding Hungary’s Parliament Building is one of the most important symbolic areas for the Hungarian people as a political community. The Orbán government rebuilt Kossuth Square based on plans that had been made several political cycles ago, in order to ensure that the statues and monuments found on the square exclusively reflect the right-wing view of history: 1) the statue of one of the most important figures of Hungarian poetry and a committed left-wing activist was moved away from the Parliament building on to the bank of the Danube. 2) They removed a statue of a former prime minister, who, according to the right, was one of the main persons responsible for the First World War, and for the Trianon peace treaty which significantly reduced Hungary’s territory. 3) A few meters away from the former place of the statue, they erected a monument to his main political opponent. 

Removal of the Hóman statue

Recognized as an historian, Bálint Hóman was one of the most prominent antisemitic politicians of Hungary’s right-wing nationalist Horthy government between the two World Wars. One of the drafters of the Jewish laws, he remained a member of Parliament even after the Hungarian fascist party, the Arrow Cross, took over in October 1944. He was declared a war criminal by the People’s Court in 1946 for having continued the deportation of Jews and Roma and for executing thousands. A few years ago, a movement to rehabilitate him began, and one year ago a court ruled that, due to his vote in favour of declaring war against the Soviet Union, he could not be deemed a war criminal. After that, a politician of the leading party launched an initiative to construct a monument to Hóman in the Hungarian city of Székesfehérvár, as he had once been the city’s parliamentary representative. Both the national government and the city council gave financial support to the foundation that brought the initiative. The same groups protested against this statue as did against the occupation monument. As the scandal grew to international proportions, in last December the Hungarian government backed down. The prime minister labelled Hóman as a (Nazi) collaborator, the city of Székesfehérvár withdrew its support and the foundation stopped its activities as well. According to US President Barack Obama’s speech on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 28, 2016, pressure by the US government had played a role in preventing the erection of the statue.

Failure of the Donáth monument project

Another monument project which met its demise on February 24, 2016 was also supported by the Hungarian government. The plan was to erect a bust of Hungarian antisemitic and racialist politician György Donáth (executed in 1947 as the result of a show trial) near the Budapest Holocaust Museum. The unveiling ceremony had to be interrupted as a result of demonstrations at the site, and the statue was removed. A broad-ranging debate has continued in Hungary’s media about who does and does not deserve to be commemorated with a public statue. 

Without exception, all of the events listed above divided society along the traditional right/left ideological dividing lines based on historical and ideological debates. Given the clockwork regularity with which these cases arise, one can sense that they are not popping up spontaneously – quite the contrary. Those who launch plans to set up or take down a monument do so in order to strengthen the political identity of people on their side by stimulating public discussions on symbolic issues.

The expression “emlekezetpolitika” – memory politics – has returned to the Hungarian language, and is used to qualify political actions which, following a specific agenda, attempt to use political memory as a way of forming a shared identity and of influencing the behaviour of voters. In the context of memory politics, historical memory is a type of battlefield on which contemporary political figures can gain ground by making – out of many possible interpretations – their own interpretations of historical events dominate. The aim here is twofold:

  1. A guided interpretation of the past strengthens the legitimacy of the current power. Naturally, this technique is not new, as rulers in power have always sought an earlier era or individual whose successor they can claim to be. The Orbán government is using this method when it places its “freedom fight” against Brussels in the context of Hungary’s historical tradition of uprisings and revolts. Similarly, it seeks to legitimize the “illiberal democracy” which it promotes by morally rehabilitating the authoritarian system in power before World War 2 and by creating a sense of historical continuity through various symbolic means.
  2. The other aim of deliberate memory politics is to shape the national and thus political values and identity of the voting public. Before the appearance of 19th century nationalism, rulers throughout history only saw their own throne as a means for legitimization. It was only after the rise of nation-states that politicians realized what an important role could be played by the construction and manipulation of historical memory in terms of bringing political community together, strengthening nationalism and – not least – in maintaining political power. Fidesz uses this second type of memory politics in a completely unique, sui generis manner.

Who represents the nation?

As a result of deliberately divisive politicking that exploits the past, at this point in Hungary there is virtually no area of consensus within the national memory. In line with ongoing political confrontations, people take different stances on historical events and figures. The reverse is also true: opinions on certain historical events (such as the participation of the Hungarian in the deportation of the Jews or whether the loss of Hungarian territory after World War 1 was inevitable) play a role in the choice of a political party, and in defining individual political identity. All of this primarily applies to events and personalities from the recent past (20th century), but there is also a significant faction which even has alternative interpretations of the origins of the Hungarian people and of how they occupied their current homeland 1100 years ago, which diverge significantly from the facts established by scholars. 

Of course similar phenomena can be observed in other countries as well, and within normal circumstances, these differences can find a place within the consensual framework of a shared national memory. However, this is not how it works in Hungary. Here the debate is not about which of the parties representing part of the nation has the most valuable historical traditions; it’s about which party belongs to the nation. 

Fidesz does not define itself merely as a conservative, populist or right-wing party, but primarily as the party of the Hungarian nation. It refers to itself as the side of the nation, while it identifies the liberal left – whether implicitly or explicitly – as being un-Hungarian. The main goal of Fidesz’ memory politics strategy is to legitimize this division between national and non-national. The function of the symbolic memory politics measures is to, again and again, reinforce this divide: on one side is the Hungarian nation, while its enemies are on the other. The latter may include the left, the liberal intelligentsia, NGOs, human rights activists, bankers, journalists, or cosmopolitan Jews – depending on how one interprets their frequently ambiguous statements.

In Hungary, this dichotomy which has been systematically built up since the mid-1990s defines political discourse much more than responses to economic questions. It is another issue that the entire political elite – of course, in varying degrees – should consider itself responsible for this divisiveness. The general mood that has emerged is that nationalism built upon the nation’s grievances has proved to be much more attractive than the ideals of equality or freedom. 

From monocracy to a battle on two fronts

Up until recently, this dichotomous system based on the national / non-national schism (or, from the left-wing perspective: backward / progressive) operated in a stable manner. However, the rise of the Jobbik party has created a new situation. Fidesz does not know where to place this extreme-right party, self-defined as radical nationalists, in its usual system of coordinates. They cannot be positioned as anti-nationalists. In fact, Fidesz finds itself cornered: in order for it to continue to use its tried-and-true national / non-national approach, at least vis-à-vis the liberal left, it is continuously forced to outbid Jobbik in nationalism issues.  

The party leaders have resigned themselves to the eventuality that Jobbik outdoes them on the nationalism level. In order to avoid this, they have chosen a tactic of taking over as many propositions as possible from the radical Jobbik party, whether it concerns the migration crisis or with regards to symbolic, memory politics issues. 

This is where the monument cases fit in.

All of these cases play out in accordance with the following scenario:

  1. An organization, person or NGO connected with the government in some manner launches an initiative for the construction or removal of a monument or statue that will definitely raise protests from the liberal left-wing opposition. As one protesting historian put it, they always manage to find an antisemite, even though they could put up a statue of someone else. 
  2. The left-wing liberal opposition protests. The case raises controversy in Hungary and internationally. 
  3. Fidesz frames the initiative as an issue of national sovereignty and historical justice. 

As can be seen, Jobbik (the extreme right party) is absent from this distribution of roles. This is exactly what Fidesz wanted to achieve. An additional benefit for the latter is that it reinforces its position as the main representative of the national ethos, while forcing left-wing liberal parties to fight a battle which – in terms of public opinion – they cannot win. Another fringe benefit is that, so long as debates about statues and memorials dominate the political agenda, the opposition and the press temporarily ignore cases of corruption and policy failures which are much more unpleasant from the government’s perspective. 

Given all of the foregoing, it is certain that in the years to come there will be similar controversies in connection with the erection of other statues and memorials in public areas. For this reason, the leader of the biggest Jewish organization recommended that, for the next ten years, no new memorials should be built that refer to the disputed times of the 20th century. Another Jewish organization launched a compilation of guidelines for the construction of memorials. 

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