Hungarian Lies: Budapest, and the Manipulation of History
An extract from Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe by Rory MacLean


Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the publication of his UK top ten Stalin's Nose, Rory MacLean has retraced his original journey, backwards, from Moscow to Berlin, asking what became of the optimism of those days. Why have so many now fallen for the populists' lies and spin, dragging democracy to this precarious present moment?


Budapest travel story

Steam, dense and opaque, rose with the voices. Bodies veiled in vapour glided through the heated air. Half-heard words evolved into intangible sounds, dropping into my ears like the beads of condensation off the vaulted ceiling. Half-seen bathers moved as if in a dream, stirring themselves from the tiled benches, looming out of the scalding, sulphurous clouds.

When I could stand it no longer, I plunged out of the steam room and into the cold bath, then back into the thermal pools. Around me skin blushed rosy red or glowed nebulous black. Sweat rolled down their arms, between breasts, dropped onto the octopus mosaic floor. The half-glimpsed bodies became talking heads, submersed to the neck, soothed into conversation. Tension shivered away as the medicinal waters tickled my upper lip. I let go, lay back and floated with so many others between the beams of light that fell from the hammam's copper dome.

In the three decades since my last visit, Budapest had remained a city of curves, of underground springs, colonnades, and crescents: the arc of the Kiraly baths, the bow of Chain Bridge, the Danube itself that rolled around the mock-medieval parliament building. Yet for all its soft curves it was not a feminine city, instead something hard and unforgiving still shaped it.

Budapest parliament

Terrorhaza, or the House of Terror, is a museum of horrors. On Andrássy Avenue—across the river from the hammam and up the road from the Hungarian State Opera—stands the former headquarters of both the fascist Arrow Cross and the communist secret police. These iniquitous opponents condemned thousands to death in this haunted villa. Now the place has become one of Budapest's most popular tourist destinations, with an ominous stencilled steel blade projecting from its roof, and the shadow of the word 'TERROR' creeping across its elegant facade.

In the grey entrance hall, visitors queue by the thousands in front of two massive tombstones—one black, one red. In front of them a Hungarian everyman, Mozés Mihály, pleads in an ever-looping video: "So many people hanged. Why? Why? For what reason?" He is weeping over a grave. "Young people whose thinking was different were sent to the hangman, the executioner. This was their socialism."

On the monitor flash three words:

Fascism.

Communism.

Socialism.

In disbelief, I stepped into the deceitful museum, into a torrent of Death Metal techno pounding like gunfire. Banks of screens unleashed a staccato volley of advancing armies and armour, jumbling Hitler and Stalin, bombarding visitors with newsreel images of carnage and despair. Budapest is devastated. Bulldozers clear away the dead.

Outsiders are to blame. No mention is made that Hungary chose to ally itself with the Nazis as early as 1932, barely any suggestion that the Arrow Cross had been home-grown murderers.

In the next room, in a demonic Chaplinesque pantomime, a fascist manikin changes into a communist uniform, depicting an entire society forced to be turncoats. In the dead of night thousands of victims are rounded up to the sound of a haunting spy thriller score. In a political sleight of hand, Hungarians are absolved of responsibility for both Holocaust and gulag.

The Terrorhaza mesmerizes like a hi-tech movie, designed as it was by Attila Kovács, a talented set designer-cum-court-artist. Its heart-thumping soundtrack was composed by alt-right pop star Ákos. In its final scene, visitors ride an elevator down to the prison cells and underground gallows, immersed in the vivid narration of a janitor who'd cleaned up after executions.

Fascism.

Communism.

Liberalism, reads the next screen.

At the House of Terror, Hungary is portrayed as a perennial victim corrupted by foreigners and their ideas. Its new leaders alone can save the people from fascism and socialism, from Moscow, Berlin and Brussels. The horrors of the past have been manipulated to justify the oppression of the present. When he opened his museum, Prime Minister Orbán declared that Hungary had "slammed the door on the sick twentieth century." He didn't mention how he was poisoning the twenty-first century.

On Heroes' Square, fearless, mounted, bronze Magyar chieftains—Ond, Tond and Huba with steed armoured in stag-horn antlers—lifted their swords and cudgels to defy eternal enemies, both real and imagined. Thirty years ago on the square the 26-year-old Orbán—a little-known, charismatic, football-loving village boy—had electrified an enormous crowd with a call for Russian troops to leave Hungarian soil. "If we can trust our souls and strength, we can put an end to the communist dictatorship."

heros square Budapest

Back then he'd embraced human rights, a free press and the rule of law. He'd helped to lead Hungary towards freedom. He was elected to the National Assembly and in 1998 at the age of thirty-five became Hungary's second-youngest prime minister. Then he was seduced.

His transformation was neither violent nor dramatic. Orbán simply calculated that to retain power he had to win over the lower middle class, most of whom lived in the countryside, few of whom had finished high school. He reinvented himself by inventing enemies. He demonized intellectuals as well as the homeless, migrants and Jews. He took control of low-brow media to feed them his mythology. He bought their loyalty with government handouts. He played on the poor's sense of victimhood, cultivating their grievances.

Imre NagyOrbán— "a thin-skinned opportunist who likes to command" according to former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—transformed liberal Hungary into a single-party state with a veneer of democracy. His home village, Felcsút (population 1,688), became the richest neighborhood in the country. Its mayor—a former gas fitter and Orbán's long-time friend—came to own television stations, media companies, a bank, and a nuclear engineering firm. The mayor's old firm—which was valued at less than $40,000 in 2006—won contracts to build a bridge over the Danube and a football stadium. It also oversaw the closure of Népszabadság, the country's last major opposition newspaper.

At the same time Russia chipped in, loaning Budapest tens of billions of dollars, in part to expand a nuclear power plant but in truth to rebuild its rings of empire, perpetuating its imperial foreign policy. In thanks, Orbán obligingly criticized every EU action against Moscow.

Outside parliament, a dozen khaki-clad soldiers raised a 28-meter-square Hungarian flag on a needle-sharp pole. Around Kossuth Square, daffodils sprouted on once-noble balconies. Concrete lions roared over obscure military victories, forgotten by all but hoary historians and new nationalists. Retirees queued at post office counters to collect their pensions, eyes fixed on the twice-counted notes. At the Petöfi Sandor branch, an elderly woman handed hers back to the clerk, paid her rent, then tucked the meager balance into an envelope secured with a paper clip.

I wanted to rediscover the city, to walk again from ancient Castle Hill on the Buda bank to bustling modern Pest. At Keleti station, its papal yellow wings taking flight from the wrought-iron entrance hall, I watched policemen scan the crowd for migrants, then lead away a Syrian family. Beneath its wide, arched roof a young man paid them no heed, awaiting the arrival of the Sopron train, clutching a bunch of flowers. A blind couple tapped across the forecourt, deafened by screeching brakes and the PA tannoy.

I rode again the Budapest metro, the first underground railway on the continent. Half a lifetime ago—while researching my first book Stalin's Nose—I'd squeezed into one of its varnished wooden carriages with cellists and percussionists, flautists and violinists, all dressed in black tie, most carrying their instruments. At the Opera House stop, the musicians had piped me into the crowd, under the chestnut trees and up the grand spiral stairs into the horseshoe-shaped Opera.

But it wasn't only the street plan that felt familiar. In the air there lingered a feeling not unlike that of the communist days. It was no more than a fleeting sensation, like a draught of cold air in a hammam. I sensed that many Hungarians again radiated a certain caution, wary of stepping out of line, of people who had power over their lives.

On Liberty Square, a vicious Aryan eagle swooped down onto the archangel Gabriel, its talons opened to seize Hungary's royal orb. Orbán himself had ordered the erection of the Monument to the German Occupation, in secret. "In Memory of the Victims" was inscribed across its arch, making no distinction between Hungary's wartime Christian leadership and the slaughtered Jews, nor between Nazis and modern Germans, again manipulating the horrors of the past to poison the present.

heros square Budapest
© Tim Leffel

In contrast to Orbán's offensive and gaudy bronze monstrosity, a simple, spontaneous living memorial had taken shape across a cobbled lane. Hundreds of small stones were inscribed with the names of the country's true victims. Candles burned between the stones. Flowers had been placed among them, as well as eyeglasses, shoes and small suitcases. Photographs of lost loved ones hung from strands of barbed wire. 'My mother was murdered at Auschwitz—thank you "Archangel"' read a bitter handwritten note, its ink running like tears in the rain. Beside it a length of railway track had been wrapped in ribbons of the colors of the Hungarian flag. A cracked mirror reflected the statue of Gabriel, demanding that Hungary face its past.

As Orbán reshaped Hungary, dividing it against itself, thousands of individuals had responded by creating the contrary Eleven emlékmü—az én történelmem memorial, marking their personal ties both to history and to modern Europe, gathering on the cobbled lane to sing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the anthem of the European Union.

Hungary was not a victim, they knew. Hungarians had not been abandoned by Europe. Hungary had made its own destiny. But fewer and fewer people listened and Orbán laughed them off, declaring on his tamed television networks that he—and his monument—served "a greater calling," guided by "the pain of the loss of our sovereignty." (In 2015 Orbán's friends had owned some twenty-three Hungarian TV channels, newspapers and other media titles. Today they control more than 500 and have turned public broadcasters into mouthpieces for the government.)

Imre NagyAt end of the day I stood between the rival histories, overlooking their battlefield. At its edge rose Hazatérés Temploma, the Hungarian Reformed Church's Homecoming Temple. Every evening in the building, preachers and politicians advocated for the country's radical right, idealizing its fascist past. Hungary must take back control, they crowed. Hungary must no longer be a victim.

At its entranceway was a flower-decked bronze bust of Admiral Miklos Horthy, the fascist regent who introduced the first anti- Jewish laws to modern Europe.

"Concerning the Jewish question, for all my life I have been an anti-Semite," Horthy declared in the 1920s. "I have never made any contact with Jews. I have found it intolerable that here, in Hungary, every single factory, bank, asset, shop, theatre, newspaper, trader, etc. is in Jewish hands."

Europe cannot escape its history. Beneath the surface simmer dark forces, long unseen. Skilful and ambitious charlatans draw on them, exploiting prejudice, distorting the past, and stealing the future. They claim to represent the people, the real people. Their promise to save the nation from a corrupt elite is a fiction, of course, unlike their willingness to override constitutional checks and balances with "the people's will." In Budapest and Moscow, Westminster and Washington, these populists simply want power.

"Thirty years ago we thought that Europe was our future," Orbán said recently. "Today we believe that we are Europe's future."


Rory MacLean is one of Britain's most expressive and adventurous non-fiction writers. His books—which have been translated into a dozen languages—include UK top tens Stalin's Nose and Under the Dragon as well as Berlin: Imagine a City, "the most extraordinary work of history I've ever read" according to the Washington Post, which named it a Book of the Year. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a former member of the Executive Committee of EnglishPEN. Read about his newest book Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe and more at www.rorymaclean.com.

Photos by Rory MacLean and Tim Leffel




Related Features:
Bouncing Back From Terror in Budapest - Tim Leffel
Tipsy in Transnistria — Trying to Stay Sober in Nowhereland - Rory MacLean
Abkhazia: Party Amidst the Ruins - Stephen M. Bland
A Divided History on the Walls of Belfast - Tom Coote


See other Europe travel stories in the archives


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Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe

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Berlin: Imagine a City

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Under the Dragon

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