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Budapest's Exiled Memories


Visiting a city, any city, even your own is an exercise in influence. The stories we hear and tell, the flags that are flown, and especially the art that is presented on the streets—all are designed to help us remember, and especially to remember the official version of what happened 'back when.'

Ever since ancient history, the winning side of history has erected monuments to itself, hoping to inspire greater love, respect or at least obedience. And, over time, newer rulers often change the script. About the only instance I can think of that breaks the rule is in the U.S., where the Confederates lost the war but won the war of images.


Still, In the U.S., we grew up with stories of statues of King George melted down to make bullets for the American Revolution; in our lifetime we saw dramatic pictures of statues of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Baghdad, and recent struggles over efforts to remove the statues that honor those who fought to maintain slavery. It's happened often, and likely will happen again.


As far as I know, though, Budapest is the only place where the statues were not simply smashed or removed, but exiled from the city to a suburban Memento Park, where they can still be visited—both by those who scorn them and those who are still inspired by aspects of them.

4 We visited in 2003, when the park was only a dozen years old; it's grown since with more statues and more exhibits about them, and it makes a worthwhile detour from visiting Habsburg glories and today's hip life in the city. Easily reached by buses from several points in the city. 

















 If I seem a little blasé about the changing scene, or cynical, I don't mean to be. As James Loewen pointed out in his book "Lies on the Land," statues and monuments embody or exemplify a narrative that takes on a life of its own; the supposed nobility of the Confederate fight to maintain slavery worked its way into many people's consciousness through sentimental sculptures of Southern soldiers and generals and helped support the long years of Jim Crow in the U.S.















For that reason, I was troubled by some of the statues removed in Budapest, because they ask the question: If you remove the images of the Red Army soldiers liberating Budapest and Hungary from the Nazi armies...does it mean you think Hitler should have won? If you remove the monument to Hungarians who fought in the Spanish Civil War, is it a sign of support for Franco's victory in Spain?

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It is, I think, a rare country that can get its head around these questions; perhaps France is the most successful, managing to be nearly equally proud of the Revolution, of Napoleon, of Louis XIV and Henri IV, all without the mental conflict of Mexico's struggle to identify with both the height of Spanish culture, and with the indigenous culture that Spanish colonists destroyed.

In Budapest, then, as elsewhere, many unanswered questions.















The statues above:

  1. Memorial to Bela Kun, leader of 1919 Communist revolution in Hungary (1986)
  2. Republic of Councils monument, based on a 1919 poster (1969)
  3. Hungarian-Soviet Friendship monument (1956)
  4. Frieze from a building
  5. Lenin Relief (1970)
  6. Marx and Engels (1971) carved in granite from the Mauthausen concentration camp
  7. Red Army Soldier (1947)
  8. International Brigades (Spain) Memorial (1968)
  9. Peace monument (date unknown)
  10. Bela Kun Memorial Plaque (1989)
  11. The Workers Militia Monument (1973)
  12. Not identified, but clearly dangerous enough to be exiled...

Below, a few questionable images that escaped the statue purge...


Offices of the Russian airline—about the only place in Budapest to see a hammer-and-sickle. It's still in the airline's logo today.


In the "old days" the statues weren't permanent, either. From the colonnade at the rear in Budapest's Heroes Square, five Austrian emperors were removed to make room for five Hungarian nationalists.


Sometimes, just the names change: This is the Freedom Bridge over the Danube at Budapest; when it was built in 1896 it was the Franz Josef Bridge, named for the Emperor. It's had a few other names in between.


And here's one that got away...still in its place near the bridge, on the wall of the former sailors' union building.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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