Hungary's Battle for Memory

By Mason, John W. | History Today, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Hungary's Battle for Memory

Mason, John W., History Today

John Mason describes the convoluted way in which Hungary has publicly celebrated its history through all the vicissitudes of its recent past.

THE PEST SIDE of the river Danube that slices through Budapest is dominated by one of the largest parliament buildings in the world. Designed to govern an empire and completed in 1902, only sixteen years before the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed, this outsized, neo-Gothic building, modelled on Westminster, tells us more about the aspirations than the reality of Hungary's troubled history. Four statues dotted around the parliament building give us a truer picture of Hungary's past.

At the southern end of parliament stands a statue of Ferenc Rakoczi, the Transylvanian prince who fought for Hungary's independence against the Habsburgs before being driven into exile in 1711. Opposite Rakoczi, on the north side, is a statue of Lajos Kossuth, who led Hungary to independence for six months before he was forced into exile in 1849. Also on the north side of Parliament is a statue of Mihaly Karolyi, the first president of independent Hungary for five months before he was driven into exile in 1919. Finally, across the square in front of parliament, is a statue of Imre Nagy, the prime minister of Hungary for ten days during the revolution of 1956, who was executed two years later.

These statues, rather than the grandiose parliament building, point to Hungary's dark history. Since 1848 Hungary has experienced two failed revolutions, fought on the losing side in two world wars, suffered the loss of over half its territory and endured three foreign invasions and occupations. The German word for monument is denkmal, which means `think again'. In a history full of defeat and disaster the urge to `think again' is more a necessity than a luxury, for in expressing symbolically the `might have beens' of history, such as freedom and independence, monuments in Hungary have done much to form the country's historic memory and national identity. But these monuments have also been used to manipulate the public memory for political purposes.

On March 15th, 1848, a group of radical students, including Hungary's greatest poet, Sandor Petofi, proclaimed a Twelve Point programme in the cafe Pilvax in Pest, thus sparking off the Hungarian revolution. This was a moment in Hungarian history comparable to the 1789 Revolution for France, and it would later assume enormous symbolic importance in its public memory. The demonstration of March 15th, 1848, became so firmly lodged in Hungary's public memory that it was symbolically re-enacted in the country's two great twentieth-century struggles for freedom -- 1956 and 1989. Yet 1848 bequeathed a divided legacy because it was not only a liberal revolution, but a nationalist one. Under the leadership of Lajos Kossuth, Hungary demanded liberal social reforms such as freedom of the press and emancipation of the serfs. She also appealed to the conscience of liberal Europe for her national rights against Habsburg domination. But the Magyars formed only forty per cent of the population of the land under the Hungarian Crown, and they denied national rights to the non-Magyar peoples, especially the Romanians, Serbs and Croats, who were claiming these rights for themselves. In the war of independence that followed the 1848 revolution, Hungary fought against two of Europe's most despotic regimes -- the Habsburg and Romanov empires - eventually losing to the Tsarist army at Vilagos in August 1849. For a short, glorious, historical moment, however, Hungary gained the attention of the world (as it was to do a hundred years later in 1956) in its struggle against the odds for national freedom and liberal reforms. It would not be the last time that a Russian army decided the fate of Hungary for a couple of generations.

Even though the 1848 revolution failed, perhaps because it failed, it soon began to acquire a symbolic importance in Hungary's civic consciousness. …

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