The ghosts of Budapest’s past

The 20th century was not kind to Hungary. When the post-WWI Treaty of Trianon partitioned the nation into a much smaller territory, WWII fights left Hungary in a battered state. The arrival of communism further tested an already depleted national identity. Testament to Hungary’s resilience is how the country has rebuilt and paid remembrance to the past century of tumult with several poignant attractions.

The Republic of Councils monument in Budapest's Memento Park. Image by Amos Chapple / Getty Images The Republic of Councils monument in Budapest's Memento Park. Image by Amos Chapple / Getty Images

Whimsical is definitely not the word to describe Memento Park. After the fall of communism in 1989, most socialist monuments from around Eastern Europe were torn down. Other countries destroyed their collections of imposing icons in the catharsis of revolution, but Hungary’s Soviet legacy was left abandoned in dusty warehouses. Now, more than 25 years later, 42 statues, busts and plaques which celebrated what Hungarians call the Soviet Occupation are a fascinating Budapest tourist attraction.

A huge statue of Lenin greets visitors at the gates of Memento Park, and inside is a jumbled history of the second half of the 20th century. Post-WWII images of Lenin, Marx and Engels lie adjacent to stylised works from the 1970s.  There are also numerous crumbling monuments of Béla Kun, leader of the Hungarian Revolution who later ran afoul of Stalin before his eventual rehabilitation as a communist icon.

Top buys at the bleakly ironic souvenir shop include cans of air filled with the ‘last breath of socialism’. Darkly ironic music fans can groove to mix CDs of the ‘Best of Communist Revolutionary Songs’, or light up Lenin and Stalin candles to illuminate the dying embers of revolution.

House of Terror museum on Andrássy út in Budapest. Image by Holger Leue / Getty Images House of Terror museum on Andrássy út in Budapest. Image by Holger Leue / Getty Images

Back in downtown Budapest, the 20th-century tragedy is masked by stylish cafes and Art Nouveau apartments. Number 60 on Andrássy út was the headquarters of the secret police of the Fascist Arrow Cross party in the dying days of WWII, and from 1945 to 1956 the building was used for similar purposes by the equally repressive communists.  After falling into disrepair, it re-opened in 2002 as the House of Terror, a powerful memorial to the thousands who experienced torture in subterranean cells under two different totalitarian regimes.

The entrance is spectacular, with a Soviet tank surrounded by hundreds of photographs of victims. The exhibitions dealing with the fascist and communist regimes are grim and chilling. Photographs are black and white, and colours are stark and monochromatic, illuminating the swastika-like arrow cross of the fascists and the red star of the communists. A plush red curtain opens suddenly to illuminate the luxurious red velvet interior of a Communist Party limousine.

Specially commissioned music and soundscapes envelop visitors, but despite the hi-tech gimmickry, personal details make the experience emotional and affecting. A single room is a shrine to the global Hungarian diaspora after the Soviet crackdown in 1956. Postcards from successful refugees in Los Angeles and Sydney. Canada and New Zealand are a display of resilience; a recording of Dean Martin croons ‘Memories are made of this’ in the background.  It could be kitsch, but it is actually very touching.

The last two rooms alleviate the earlier melancholic gloom of the House of Terror, and hope explodes with video clips showing the festive release of the events of 1989. In a new century, it’s a colourful and welcome segue outside to a Budapest summer’s day.

This article was first published in August 2011 and last updated in April 2015.