A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 12 February 2017

In Which I Propagate Propaganda for the Hungarian State

Orbán Viktor's government has come under criticism for a great many things. Some of these are undoubtedly justified, such as the 4,000 seat football stadium constructed directly across the road from Orbán's country estate. Some are more contentious, such as the opening and continued operation of the "House of Terror", a museum in Budapest discussing the Hungarian experience of Nazism and Communism. The museum, which is operated by an associate of Orbán (and the owner of one of Hungary's leading newspapers) has been accused of selectively or misleadingly presenting history in order to promote the nationalist politics of Orbán's party.

Having at last got around to going through the place, I think most of the complaints are very dubious. Some of them are clearly so - for example, the complaint that the museum gives more attention to the Nazi occupiers than to the Soviets. While this is true, it is also the case that the Nazis occupied Hungary for less than a year towards the end of WWII (Hungary had been allied with the Nazis, but when they saw which way the war was going and attempted to make peace with the USSR, Hitler ordered a coup) whereas the Soviet occupation lasted from the end of WWII until the fall of communism, a period of more than forty years. Indeed, I would suggest that the 20%-or-so of the museum given over to Nazism represents, if anything, disproportionate coverage of that particular travail.

Another criticism is that it portrays Hungarians only as victims, and denies the roll that they themselves played in the regimes. Again, I don't think this is a sensible criticism. The museum makes it clear that Hungarians were involved in these, and in particular the end of the exhibition has a room of "victimisers": Hungarian people named and shamed for their role in the communist secret police. Each entry had a name, birth and death dates, a photo, and a brief description of the person's role. It appears that a quite considerable portion of the people named there are still alive.

 Two things that interested me while going through the museum: first, there was an account of a company of Hungarian youths going on a trip to Yugoslavia, where they built a railway. For much of the Cold War, Yugoslavia was controlled by Marshal Tito, a man fiercely independent of Moscow to the extent that (according to my old GCSE History textbook) there was more Soviet propaganda attacking Tito than attacking the West. Hungary was part of the Warsaw Pact, and enjoyed only limited independence from Moscow, so it was a surprise to see this kind of interaction.

A second thing that I found notable, though not really surprising: how nationalist the Hungarian Socialist State was. It only now occurs to me that the phrase "People's Republic" (as Hungary then was, and e.g. China still is) is only really used by socialist regimes, but has an obvious populist slant. There were many videos of party bigwigs giving speeches - usually either at the State Opera House or at what I assume is now Memento Park - which inevitably ended with the phrase "long live the People's Republic of Hungary". For all that we talk of populism now, it's hard to think of any western politician developing such a habit (with the exception of Trump's "Make America Great Again"s).

No comments:

Post a Comment