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How should Hungarians remember World War II?

A controversial memorial to Germany's occupation of Hungary has split society and sparked daily protests.

Last updated: 27 May 2014 06:52
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Thirty-nine percent of Hungarians say they think the planned monument 'falsifies history' [EPA]

Budapest, Hungary - Budapest's Szabadsag ter, or Freedom Square, is no stranger to controversy. 

One end features a memorial to Soviet soldiers and is surrounded by the US embassy and a two-metre-tall statue of former US president Ronald Reagan in mid-stride.

The other end is home to a Reformed Church whose clergy is associated with the far-right nationalist Jobbik party. A bust of Admiral Miklos Horthy, the leader of Hungary who sided with Nazi Germany, stands at the entrance.

Now, the Fidesz government currently in power is erecting a monument to the victims of the Nazi occupation of Hungary. It will feature an eagle, representing Nazi Germany, attacking the Archangel Gabriel, representing the Hungarian victims.

However, some of these victims are not pleased.

'Historical falsification'

"The idea that Hungary suffered under the yolk of Nazi Germany? That's a historical falsification," Dr Agnes Heller told Al Jazeera in an interview. "Hungary collaborated with Nazi Germany."

Heller, a prominent Hungarian philosopher, was born in Budapest in 1929. As a young Jewish girl, she lived through the Nazi occupation of Budapest, during which her father was deported to Auschwitz. He did not survive.

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Nazi Germany did not invade Hungary until March 1944, little more than a year before the war ended. The Horthy regime, in power from 1920-44, maintained an alliance with Nazi Germany, going so far as to implement laws mirroring the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws.

After the Nazi invasion, Horthy was allowed to remain the head of state. A government sympathetic to the Nazis was appointed and the mass deportation of Jewish Hungarians began. By July 1944, approximately 440,000 Jewish Hungarians had been deported to Auschwitz.

This left an undeniable mark on the people of Budapest. "If you erect a statue that symbolises the historical experience of these people, you have to have a discussion before you do it," Heller said. "You cannot make a decision without listening to people's perception of the event."

At the beginning of the year, the Fidesz government announced that the monument would be completed by March 31.

"The Hungarian government didn't involve the Jewish community at all. No plans beforehand, no discussion," said Tamas Desi, the head of foreign relations at Mazsihisz, the largest organisation representing the Hungarian Jewish community.

The government postponed the monument until May 31 to hold further negotiations concerning the design, but those negotiations never happened.

Public outcry

Due to the sordid history and lack of discussion surrounding the monument, demonstrators have gathered around the construction site to protest on a daily basis. Although the demonstrators employed peaceful tactics, they were forcibly removed by the police at the end of April.

Some have suggested that the conflict between the police and demonstrators mirrors a split in Hungary - evidenced by a recently published poll showing that 39 percent of Hungarians think the monument falsifies history, while 38 percent think it's a worthy memorial. Twenty-three percent aren't sure.

Erzsebet Toth, who runs a cafe near the monument, did not see a reason for concern. "There have been a lot of demonstrations, but I personally have no opinion on the matter," she said. "I am neutral." 

Tamas Arpad, a recent university graduate, was supportive of the monument. "We Hungarians have suffered many occupations," Arpad told Al Jazeera. "A statue that is memorialising one of the worst should not cause such a scandal."

For the 21st century, [the monument] is absolutely unacceptable. It's all the more worrying that it comes at a time when writers of the Arrow Cross party are being taught in Hungarian schools.

- Sacha Reingewirtz, president of the Jewish Students Union of France

"The country is deeply divided politically, and this division spreads in the field of history," Janos Gado, an editor at Szombat, the Jewish magazine that commissioned the poll. "Therefore, there is no agreement." 

The disagreement isn't confined to the borders of Hungary. Organisations from abroad have travelled to Budapest to express their discontent with the monument. 

Sacha Reingewirtz, the president of the Jewish Students Union of France, came to Budapest to speak at one of the daily protests. "For the 21st century, it's absolutely unacceptable," Reingewirtz said in an interview with Al Jazeera. "It's all the more worrying that it comes at a time when writers of the Arrow Cross party are being taught in Hungarian schools."

Reingewirtz was referring to Jozsef Nyiro, a Hungarian author who served in parliament during the short reign of the fascist Arrow Cross party, which toppled Horthy in a Nazi-supported coup in October 1944 and deported roughly 80,000 more Jews before the end of the war. As of September 2013, Nyiro's works were required reading in Hungarian public schools.

Moving to the right

Some view the monument and the inclusion of Nyiro in the Hungarian curriculum as part of a larger strategy to please far-right voters.

Jobbik is the main competitor of the ruling centre-right Fidesz party, and won more than 20 percent of votes in the last national elections. Because of this, many claim that Fidesz is moving further right to court supporters of the ultra-nationalist party.

Throughout the country, streets and squares are being renamed in honour of Admiral Horthy. The government has done little to stop this. "There is no hindering the building of Horthy busts or the renaming of Horthy squares," Desi explained. "They say it's up to the municipalities."

Many feel that the reintroduction of Horthy is creating a historical narrative that sanctions the rhetoric of the far-right. "This different and false point of view of history comes from Jobbik. It's clear what they think, it's not a secret for them or us," Desi concluded.

These events alarm Heller, too, especially since there is no serious competition from the left. In the recent Hungarian parliamentary elections, the left-wing alliance won only 38 of 199 seats. "The liberal left is weak, they have conflicts among themselves, and they do not present any real solutions," she said.

Hungarian society is in need of solutions. According to a survey conducted by the Tarki Research Institute, nearly 47 percent of Hungarians lived in a household that experienced poverty, unemployment or social exclusion in 2012.

However, Heller does not feel that stadiums built to symbolise progress and statues intended to memorialise victims are the solutions the country needs.

"People are starving, and you cannot propose a welfare state solution because it requires funds to redistribute. What's left isn't redistributed, stadiums are constructed."

As for Freedom Square's newest statue? "This monument is an outright lie," Heller said.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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