Tony Paterson: A museum with a selective memory


The "House of Terror" is a daunting and at times horrific museum devoted to Hungary's recent totalitarian past.

The light-blue, turn-of-the-century building on Andrassy Boulevard was used as a headquarters by the secret police of the country's fascist Arrow Cross party, installed by the Nazis during the closing stages of the Second World War. After the Soviet invasion, the same building was used for almost identical purposes by the feared communist state security police or AVO. The subterranean prison cells where anti-fascists and anti-communists were routinely tortured, are now exhibits on a well-trodden tourist track providing a grim warning to visitors. After the Soviet Union crushed Hungary's 1956 uprising against communist rule, the building was even rumoured to have contained a giant meat grinder, supposedly used to dispose of murdered regime opponents. It's hardly surprising that the " House of Terror" is nowadays topped by a large and ominous black frame.

The museum is an attempt to lump together the evils of Fascism and Communism in one building. The entrance hall contains an imposing sculpture which tries to set the message in stone by combining Hungary's fascist arrow symbol with the communist red star. Yet even the museum's official guides seem to recognise that the experiment doesn't quite work. They appear embarrassed about the lack of space devoted to the country's role in the mass extermination of the Jews. "Er, we don't deal much with the Holocaust here," explained a tour operator to a group of slightly bewildered English visitors last week. "We leave that to the Holocaust museum which is in another part of the city."

The guide was certainly right. Apart from a collection of black and white photographs and a few black uniforms of the Arrow Cross party, the museum virtually side-steps the brief but appalling purge of Jews which began after Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the Holocaust, arrived in Budapest in March 1944. Instead, the visitors are shown what amounts to an anti-communist shrine. Room after room is packed with Soviet-era propaganda and filmed accounts of the sufferings endured as a result of communist brutality delivered first hand by the victims. In the cellars schoolchildren take turns to push each other into the brutal"standing room only" cells, used to break the will of regime critics.

There are shocking accounts of the com-munist persecution of Hungary's Kulak peasant farmers and of the show trials used to dispense with the 1956 rebels. As you arrive and leave, you are confronted by a non stop film in the lobby which shows a man weeping over young men and boys, some only 16, who were hanged for taking part in the 1956 uprising. "They were just kids – this was their socialism," he says. But the figures alone demand a more balanced explanation.

An estimated 2,500 Hungarian opponents of Soviet rule died in 1956. Eichmann sent a staggering 550,000 Hungarian Jews to the death camps in just seven weeks between March and July 1944. Most historians are convinced that such a feat of barbarity would simply not have been possible without the collaboration of large sections of the Hungarian population and the police. I don't think Michael Miller, a historian at Budapest's Central European University is exaggerating when he says that Hungary's contribution to the Holocaust "has not been examined sufficiently".

Roma bashing gets a constitutional nod

Failure to address Nazi war crimes adequately, or equating Hitler's genocide with the evils of Communism are disturbing enough for a country which currently holds the EU presidency, but the issues causing concern do not end there. "Roma bashing" is the now on the agenda in the eastern Hungarian village of Gyongyospata where far-right vigilante groups recently forced nearly 300 Romany Gypsies to flee their homes.Many in Hungary have linked the vigilantes to the country's far-right, racist Jobbik party which recently gained seats in the national parliament. Jobbik denies any involvement, but its message is clear. "There has been terror by gypsies in Hungary, but it's not Jobbik's responsibility, it's a direct consequence of the past 20 years," one of the party's MPs was quoted as saying.

If Amnesty International is to be believed, the unsavoury nature of Hungarian politics, currently dominated by the nationalist conservative Fidesz party, runs deeper than that. The government has just ratified a new constitution which Amnesty has criticised for "violating international and European human rights standards." With a preamble which lays great emphasis on concepts such as the "Fatherland", traditional family values and the "Holy Crown of Hungary", critics ague that it discriminates against minority groups. It also proclaims that Hungary lost its self-determination when Hitler's forces invaded in 1944 and thus provides a convenient tool to avoid examining the issue of Nazi collaboration.

Justice finally beckons for one Budapest pensioner

Given this background, the Hungarian justice authorities ought to be congratulated for stemming current trends. Ten days ago a Hungarian court took the courageous decision to put 97-year-old Sandor Kepiro on trial. As a Hungarian army captain, Kepiro is suspected of complicity in the massacre of some 1,200 Serbs and Jews in the Serbian town of Novi Sad in 1942. One of the country's last surviving war crimes suspects, he had been living quietly in Budapest since 1996. If it does nothing else, his trial will begin to focus attention on one of the most shameful chapters in Hungarian history.