Exploring Budapest I couldn’t help but feel like it’s a city that’s still very much haunted by the past. I didn’t know much about Hungarian history before I arrived but, once there, it was hard to escape. Hungary as a whole seems to be still very much reeling from the horrors and tragedies of the last few hundred years.
Monuments and buildings dotted throughout the city proclaim loud and clear the various upheavals the country has faced. From the Turkish occupation and the failed battles for independence against the Austrians, to the resounding defeats both in WWI and WWII, and the country’s subsequent history with the soviets and the tragic events during communism. They have all left deep scars on the landscape: both physically and psychologically.
The first major confrontation I had with Hungary’s past is the controversial monument depicting a Germanic eagle swooping down on the angel Gabriel (a symbol of Hungary). The Hungarian PM claims it’s a monument in remembrance of the victims of Nazi occupation, but many Hungarians oppose the monument, claiming it paints a picture of Hungary as being unwilling prey to German occupation when in reality they were willing participants. Tributes to the jewish population who were brutally murdered on Hungarian soil surround the monument, proclaiming that the people of Hungary will not forget what was done to the local population by the Hungarian Arrow Cross party who was in power at the time.
Likewise, as you walk along the Danube from Budapest’s iconic Chain Bridge, you will find yourself facing a line of discarded shoes left along the quay. This is the site where a group of Hungarian Jews were told to take off their footwear before being shot into the icy waters of the Danube below. A deeply sobering sight.
On my last day in Budapest we went to the House of Terror. This is a museum to commemorate the victims of the Arrow Cross party and later the communist terror organisations. Both of which made their headquarters in that very building. We heard stories and viewed old footage from the time, watching as one regime toppled to be replaced by another. I discovered that the bloodshed and devastation of WWII was quickly followed by a time of complete heartbreak as hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were carted off to labour camps in Russia. And those left behind were subjected to appalling conditions as they struggled with the farming quotas and personal land seizures. 300,000 Hungarians disappeared never to be seen again in the Russian labour camps, and those who did return often couldn’t make it back until decades later. The last Hungarian to return from Russia did so in the year 2000.
Not only was the population taken from Hungary, but so too was it’s lands, being carved up and given away to neighboring countries as a punishment for Hungary’s participation in WWI. It seems that, throughout the centuries, one tragic incident followed the next, giving the people of Hungary no time to recover before being thrown into further misery. Even the words of their national anthem proclaim the pessimistic view of both past and future that the Hungarian people themselves now shoulder:
Pity, O Lord, the Hungarians
Who are tossed by waves of danger
Extend over it your guarding arm
On the sea of its misery
Long torn by ill fate
Bring upon it a time of relief
They who have suffered for all sins
Of the past and of the future!