At a time when the US seems to be struggling with what to do with its Confederate statues and memorials, I can’t help but remember my trip to Budapest back in 2006. What an amazing city, with a lot of very tragic history. They were occupied by German forces in WWII, forcing them to embrace Fascism even as the Nazis were applying internal terror to control the people. So it’s understandable that the Soviets might have seemed like liberators to them at first.
The Soviet Red Army occupied the city in 1945. During the peace talks, Great Britain and the US basically gave the country over to Stalin. After much torture, spying, interrogations and fear brought down upon the citizenry for years on end, in 1956, a student-inspired revolution took place, and while it relieved some of the societal pressure, it ultimately failed. The control finally started crumbling in 1989, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the last Soviet occupying soldier left Budapest. By then, all the soviet era statues had been joyfully pulled down.
And lo and behold, despite the absence of these statues in the public squares, Hungary’s dark history has not been erased any more than ours would be without Robert E. Lee gazing at us in our city parks. In fact, the people of Budapest handled their statues in a brilliant way. They dragged them all to one location, and turned that into an opportunity to teach about their past oppression in the hopes that it will never, ever happen again. They created Memento Park.
I remember standing among these monuments, and thinking how intimidating they must have been in their heyday. Some of them are 20 feet tall. All of them make the men look strong, the women look hard-working and dedicated, and for the most part, the people all look like anonymous and mindless machines. It must have been terrifying to pass them every day, knowing that’s what your government expected you to see, feel, and believe.
Now, gathered in an educational park, lined up like so many dominoes of long-dead subjugation, they seem rather pathetic and powerless. Children climb on them. People take pictures in front of them while they make funny faces. But mostly, they learn that none of us should go backward, into an era of the exaltation of hate and control.
History shouldn’t be forgotten. That’s what books and teachers are for. Monuments are not history. They are for glorification, and should be removed from our public spaces as our society becomes older and hopefully wiser. Learn from these silent statues, taken down from their shining pedestals. Learn, but don’t deify.
I hope we follow suit in the US. The time is long overdue. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with some photos of me in Memento Park in Budapest.