I passed parents watching their kids frolic in the fountains, teens laughing while riding their bikes together, and young hipsters drinking beers in Erzsébet Téri Park while lounging around on blankets. Returning for the first time since my initial visit in 2007, Budapest seemed cleaner, brighter, and downright cheerful.
There's still plenty to be glum about in Hungary. Europe's economic crisis has hit this country harder than many. The ruling party runs afoul of EU rules on a regular basis. The Hungarian forint keeps flirting with record lows against the dollar. Still, the atmosphere is so much more positive that you can feel it in the air. Perhaps everyone is just happy to be feeling free, without an occupier watching everyone's every move.
Hungary has long been guided by forces from the outside. One of the country's founding heroes, King István (Saint Stephen), is said to have converted the whole country to Christianity as a tactical move. Become a godly nation and avoid being ruled by others more friendly with the Pope. They went on the offensive and gained territory, soon to be rebuffed by the Mongols, Turks, Austrians, or Russians. Eventually an uneasy alliance led to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which ruled a huge swath of territory for 150 years. In reality though, the Austrian Hapsburgs were the ones who had driven the Ottoman Turks out of Hungary, so they always held the upper hand. The liberators became the occupiers.
"We picked the wrong side in both World Wars," many a Hungarian will explain with a sigh. After siding with the Germans in WWI, Hungary got what was perhaps the rawest deal of them all in the war-end treaties, losing some 70 percent of its territory and stranding 30 percent of its population on the wrong side of new borders. With all access to the seas now cut off, its navy was no more.
This indignity turned out to be just the start of it, however. Hungary's leaders struck a deal with the Germans again during the next World War in order to avoid being occupied. That worked until 1944, when the Nazis got wind of communication with the allies and arrived to do their worst.
That's where the story begins at the powerful House of Terror museum.
The House of Terror is not the kind of museum where people chat amiably and smile a lot. It's the kind of place where visitors wipe away tears, cover their eyes in front of a video screen, or put their head in their hands for a few minutes in a chair to recover. Besides covering all the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their puppet enforcers, then the Soviets and their puppet enforcers, the building itself is where thousands were interrogated, tortured, and executed.
The unfathomable cruelty of the Nazis is well-known, but by the time they turned their attention to Hungary their extermination drive had reached an apex: 437,402 Hungarian Jews were deported to death camps by the Third Reich in a mere two months. One riverside walk along the Danube leads to a collection of bronze shoes. It's a reminder of where some Jews were simply shot and pushed into the river.
The rule of the Nazis was cruel but short: the Russians began their invasion of Budapest at the end of 1944 and a six-week battle ravaged the city. With my Underguide I met with Yanush, the man who guards the chain bridge connecting Buda and Pest, the two halves of the city straddling the Danube River. We explored the maintenance tunnels underneath and saw the giant chains and cables that control the suspension. In his office were photos of what the bridge looked like after the Germans blew it up-and all the others-in January of 1945. It was a last attempt to obey Hitler's orders to hold onto Budapest, even though the Germans by that point controlled only the hills of Buda.
By March of 1945 the Russians had driven the Germans out of Hungary completely. The country was in ruins, 10 percent of its former population dead. In new elections, the communist party only won 17 percent of the vote, but with Soviet tactics of intimidation and torture, they gained more and more power. While their election total never climbed above 22 percent, they were able to take over in 1947 and dissolve parliament for the next 40 years. New rulers dismissed more than 1,000 experienced judges and appointed party faithful to conduct show trials with predetermined guilty verdicts.
Again, the liberators became the occupiers. This time though, there was not even a veneer of independence.
What followed was a culture of fear and terror unimaginable to those of us who have always lived in a free country. The communist rulers jailed the head of the Catholic Church, closed (and sometimes mined) the borders to prevent emigration, and placed at least 600,000 former Hungarian citizens in Soviet captivity. Half died from executions or from conditions in horrendous rehabilitation labor camps surrounded by barbed wire fences. The Soviet national anthem replaced the Hungarian one, snitching on co-workers and family members was encouraged, and anyone not showing sufficient enthusiasm during speeches or songs could be tortured for a "confession" and never seen again. Sometimes "traitors" were targeted for different reasons: when the state could commandeer any private property, expelling an infidel and his family from a mansion opened up a nice new spot for a party ruler.
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