Imagining Postcommunism: Visual Narratives of Hungary's 1956 Revolution

Imagining Postcommunism: Visual Narratives of Hungary's 1956 Revolution

Imagining Postcommunism: Visual Narratives of Hungary's 1956 Revolution

Imagining Postcommunism: Visual Narratives of Hungary's 1956 Revolution


Although the 1956 Hungarian uprising failed to liberate the country from Soviet domination, it became a symbol of freedom for people throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. Labeling the events a counterrevolution, communist authorities exacted revenge in two years of terror and intimidation. Then, for the next thirty years, they pursued a policy of forced forgetting, attempting to obliterate public memory of the events. As communism unraveled in the late 1980s, the 1956 revolution was resurrected as inspiration for a new political order.

In Imagining Postcommunism, Beverly James demonstrates how 1956 became a foundational myth according to which the bloody events of that fall led to the ceremonial reburial of the martyred prime minister Imre Nagy in 1989, free elections in 1990, and the withdrawal of the last Soviet soldiers on June 19, 1991. She shows how museums, monuments, and holiday rituals have aided the construction of a new Hungary through the reclamation and expression of competing memories of the critical events of 1956.

Surveying the dazzling array of ceremonies, exhibitions, and memorials commemorating the revolution and its heros, James invites readers to consider the difference between the communist regime's master narrative of 1956, with its smug, false unity, and the multiple, polemical stories woven by competing political forces in postcommunist Hungary.

A thoughtful application of communication and historical theories on the uses of memory, this study offers a unique perspective on a crucial episode in the history of Eastern Europe.


THE LATEST POLITICAL-CULTURAL SPECTACLE in Budapest is a museum that commemorates the victims of tyranny. The House of Terror is located on Andrássy Street, one of the city’s most beautiful boulevards, in an elegant neo-renaissance building that served as the headquarters of the Hungarian fascists from 1937 until the end of the Second World War. It was then occupied until 1956 by the dreaded ÁVO, the communist secret police. Opened in February 2002 by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the museum honors the victims of both murderous regimes through chilling exhibits of dank prison cells, torture chambers, and the black limousine used by Nikita Khrushchev when he visited Budapest. Orbán stated in his opening address that the purpose of the museum was to show young Hungarians how their ancestors had suffered to achieve freedom, peace, and prosperity.

At the time of the museum’s opening, Orbán’s party, the conservative FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Party, was in the midst of a tight election campaign. The chief contenders were the Socialists, a group that rose from the ashes of the former Communist Party when the one-party state imploded in 1989. Critics charged that the $10 million museum project was politically motivated, designed to provide visual evidence linking the Stalinist terror of the 1950s with contemporary Socialists. Beyond the timing of the museum’s inauguration—six weeks before the election— they claimed that a disproportionate representation of the fascist and communist eras confirmed their contention that the museum was designed to discredit the Socialists. The fascist Arrow Cross Party was complicit in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews to the Nazi death camps. When the cattle cars were full, the fascists simply shot their victims along the banks of the Danube and tossed their bodies, whether dead or alive, into the icy waters. Despite this barbarity, the museum’s . . .

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