Steve Sachs Duke


Monday, October 13, 2003


Don't call it a comeback: I've been here about a week, since I arrived in Oxford after visiting an old friend and his family in Hungary. I stayed for eight days, and had a wonderful time there. However, I don't want the following to give the impression that my experience was primarily political; it's just that I couldn't visit a country that had undergone such drastic change without spending a moment thinking about its history.

The last time I visited Hungary was nine years ago, in the summer of 1994. I don't remember too many of the places we went, but I do remember how it felt very different, like a socialist country. We had our passports checked every ten feet in the airport; we saw policemen in military-style uniforms; we stood in Heroes Square (baking like a reflector oven in the hottest summer yet on record) and saw all around us the concrete fruits of the past 50 years.

This time, things were very different. As I traveled through Hungary, staying a few days in Budapest as well as driving almost the length and breadth of the country, I noticed a very Central European feel, kind of like "Austria East." After living in England for a year, a country of rolling hills and green pastureland, I was glad to see straight highways, open plains, and immense fields of wheat--I'm starting to miss the Mid-West. Maybe it was because I was staying with friends, maybe it was because I had been there before, but it didn't feel foreign to me at all.

But I got the strong impression that this sense of normalcy was deliberate. On our drive, we visited Fort Monostor in Komarom, which had once withstood a siege of 60,000 soldiers, and from which the departing Soviet troops had removed everything movable (including the floors and windows). We walked through Festetics Castle in Keszthely, where the Russians decided to build a concrete-walled road through the middle of what had been a beautiful garden estate. Now the castle garden was again carefully tended, and the fort was building a new restaurant and visitor's center. My friend kept remarking how well and how recently various sights had been restored; I didn't notice, since they looked as well-maintained as any similar destinations in the U.S. (and more so than many). With every renovation, the legacy of socialism was being carefully removed, and the memory of Hungary's brighter days--when Budapest had been among the first cities of Europe--revived.

On my last day, we visited the Statue Park on the outskirts of Budapest, where several monuments to the old regime have been deposited. It's hard to reach from the center of the city, so there were only a handful of people there, and between the monuments and the emptiness it had the atmosphere of a graveyard. What struck me most was that these monuments, ostensibly erected in celebration of Hungary's achievements, were far from celebratory in emotion. There was no mistaking their design: they were supposed to be ominous and forbidding. A trio of Hungarian socialist leaders were depicted looking like nothing so much as evil robots emerging from the stone; the workers had strong arms, clenched fists, and expressions of righteous anger.

The implied message was not "let us build a worker's paradise," but "we will bury you." The many "Liberation" monuments took on a new light when my friend told me that the "liberation" was not from the fascists of 1945, but from the "counter-revolutionaries" of 1956--an inversion of meaning that reminded me of Berthold Brecht's poem "The Solution":

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

It's difficult for me to imagine living under a government that sees its role, not as serving the people, but as compelling the people to service. Lord knows capitalism hasn't solved everything, and that Hungary is hardly free of problems, but it was difficult to go there and not think that something very important has been achieved.

Best of all, they're selling T-shirts at the entrance, not far from the statues of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. A final insult to their memory, I suppose.




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© 2011 Stephen E. Sachs


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