Reflection, Not Reverence: Hungary's Communist Monuments
If you take the subway from downtown Budapest all the way to the end of the line, then switch to a bus and ride for another 20 minutes, a brick archway appears over the top of the wire fences, junkyards and graffitied billboards that litter the landscape. Underneath, framed by statues of Lenin and Stalin, is a gate with a sign that says "Memento Park." Here, on the outskirts of Budapest, the occasional tourist and history lover can find Hungary’s attempt to remove – but remember – its past.
Inside the brick walls, it looks like the world’s ugliest sculpture garden. Crumbling brick walls surround a rectangular area filled with overgrown bushes, where weed-speckled gravel pathways weave between sculptures of conquering armies and heroic soldiers. A massive pair of boots sit on a 30-foot pedestal, the remains of a giant monument honoring Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Among the weeds stand weathered busts of famous Hungarian communists, honoring those loyal to the Soviet Union during Hungary’s time as a satellite state.
This period in Hungary’s history started after World War II, when the Soviet Union pushed German forces out of the country and installed a government loyal to their own. The following years were marked by a drastic decline in standards of living for Hungarians, who dealt with food shortages and decaying infrastructure.
In October of 1956 the Hungarian people, fed up with their authoritarian leaders, launched a revolution. On the first day, over 100,000 protestors came to a central square in Budapest with steel cables and metal-cutting torches to tear down a 50-foot statue of Stalin. The crowd chanted, “Russia go home!” as the statue fell, leaving only the massive metal boots attached to the pedestal.
After a week of guerilla warfare, Soviet troops retreated to outside the city and it appeared that the revolutionaries had won. However, it was only a few more days until the tanks rolled in. These reinforcements from Moscow quickly quashed any rebellion, killing nearly 20,000 and imprisoning far more.
As the Soviet Union grew weaker through the 1970s and 80s, Hungary gradually gained more free-market principles, becoming one of the most liberal in the Soviet eastern bloc. Over time, the authoritarian rule grew weaker until free elections were held in 1990, and the Hungarian Democratic Forum took power.
In an attempt to remove public reminders of the Communist regime that ruled for nearly 50 years, the new government quickly removed most of the statues, historical markers, artwork, and even street signs honoring the Soviet Union. Then, in 1991, the Budapest General Assembly announced a competition to build a park for the dual purpose of remembering and contextualizing the artifacts. The Hungarian architect Ákos Eleöd was awarded the honor of building a park for 42 of the statues and spoke at its dedication when it opened in 1993.
“Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages,” he said at the ceremony. “Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with dead ends is still ours.”
However, the architect also said that his design was careful not to elevate the monuments it contained.
“This park is not about the statues or the sculptors,” he explained, “but a critique of the ideology that used these statues as symbols of authority.”
Today, these symbols of authority are juxtaposed with crumbling bricks and unkempt grass, marking a place to reflect but not revere. It manages to convey the power and fear these markers invoked, without giving them honor they do not deserve.
At the entrance is a little souvenir shop that plays old Soviet parade music, offers trinkets to tourists and collects the park’s €5 entry fee. Now, even the giant bronze symbols of communism have succumbed to the pressures of capitalism.
As our university leaders decide what to do with the fallen Silent Sam, it's important to remember that ours isn’t the only community which has been forced to confront the symbols of values we now detest. We can - and should - look to Hungary’s approach and other historical precedents as we consider Sam's future at UNC.
Chancellor Folt correctly noted that Silent Sam should not sit in a place of honor at the front door of the Carolina campus. Like Memento Park, Silent Sam’s final resting place should provide space to reflect on the checkered history of our university without glorifying the statue or spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve it.
Imagine less of a memorial, and more of a rarely-visited graveyard: overgrown grass, crumbling stones, and an understanding that the ideas within should be left for dead.