Szabadság Square: a Political Playground?

Szabadság Square: a Political Playground?

10 Oct 2016

Katalin Szlukovényi

What started as a flashmob response to historical revisionism in Hungary's capital, grew into a permanent addition to a disputed monument. On September 9th, this makeshift memorial was vandalised. But a firm response followed.

Freedom is a central concept of modern democracies.

As highlighted in previous article and interview, written as a tribute to the work of Living Memorial activists, it is highly ironic that Szabadság Square, in the heart of Budapest named after “Freedom,” has become a battle ground. In this arena, there are repulsive power games where authoritarian governments apparently prefer to demonstrate their transitorily official version of Hungary’s history.

About a week after my paper the extreme right online portal, Kurucinfó, published an Anti-Semitic article half of which was dedicated to voicing the author’s anger over my writing. He finished his opinion piece by quoting a colleague of his from Kurucinfó who also raged against the Living Memorial just a few days before, when stumbling blocks had been recently placed in Budapest, and also in some country towns in memory of Holocaust victims. The latter writer claimed that the Memorial of Lies would not be the monument erected in 2014 by Hungary’s present right-wing government, in memory of the Hungarian victims of the Nazi occupation at one end of Szabadság square. Instead, it would be another statue at the other end of the same square, which had been set up in 1946, in memory of the deceased soldiers of the Soviet troops invading Hungary towards the end of World War II. In conclusion, both writers encouraged people to ruin the Living Memorial.

On 9 September, certain people apparently followed their instructions and damaged or removed some of the objects that belonged to the Living Memorial collection.

A few days later, there was a repeat of the destruction...

I was flabbergasted to hear about these events and to read the arguments justifying these manifestations of violence.

To my understanding, democracy is not a soccer match. It is not played by two teams trying to score more goals against their opponent on a clearly divided field, marked by a couple of symbols – gates or monuments – at both ends.

Drawing a parallel between the Soviet and the Nazi occupation of Hungary may have some accuracy, and can definitely offer some ideas worth contemplating; but projecting a historical dichotomy on the recent state of affairs is totally wrong.

Protesting against either of the two politically sensitive memorials does not automatically rank one among the supporters of the other. We know about fellow citizens who fell victim to both oppressive powers during and right after World War II. We also know about others who complied with both oppressors. And we all know about those millions of people who were just trying to survive both dictatorial political systems, without being particularly fond of either.

As the old joke says:

Thanks to good luck, both Kohn and Grün survive the Holocaust. A few years after World War II, they pass by the official celebration on the 1st of May, the International Workers’ Day, organized by the Communist Party. Crowds of people are marching along the street, waving red flags, bearing placards and shouting slogans.
“Look” says Kohn to Grün. “Do you see that guy in the first row, carrying that huge red star? Was he not a member of the Arrow Cross Party?”
“Sure he was”
replies Grün. “And the one next to him used to be my neighbor. He was the one who reported to the authorities where I was hiding.”
“I simply cannot believe that the former guard from our ghetto is also walking among them, holding up a large picture of Stalin. Should we do something about it? Should we tell somebody what is going on?”
“Give it up, Kohn. Who would you talk to? We are a small and poor country, we cannot afford more than one mob.”

Just like Grün, I do not see much difference between various oppressors, and I feel sorry for all their victims.

For me, the essential difference lies between aggression and the willingness to enter dialogue.

Using the imagery of the Living Memorial: democracy in my view is a circle where everybody is welcome, and we carefully listen to each other in the hope of a better understanding of our shared memories, as well as our current conflicts. It is not because we are exceptionally kind people, or we necessarily like each other that much at first sight. Rather, it is because we have no other sensible choice but to learn how to live and cooperate with the diversity with which we share any public space, be it a square, a city, a country, a continent or a globe.

In a similar spirit, Living Memorial activists responded to destruction with reconstruction

Instead of escalating the conflict, they organized a flashmob to rebuild what had been ruined or stolen. Here are parts of their invitation for Sunday, 18 September:

Our Friends, Our Fellow Citizens, Hungarian People!
On 9 September, 2016, barbarous hands damaged the legendary object collection of Living Memorial at Szabadság Square: a set of personal objects, documents and memory pebbles, which had been assembled by us, Hungarian citizens in March, 2014 in protest against the German occupation memorial.
The aim of our action then was to occupy the site, using the symbolic tokens of genuine, living memory and blocking the way of people trying falsify history, who claimed that the whole nation was a mere victim to foreign invasion, thus concealing the responsibility of the Hungarian state regarding the Holocaust. Although the statue was finally erected, the government dismissed the idea of a formal unveiling ceremony as a result of our protests. Ever since then government politicians have kept far away from Szabadság Square.

We invite our fellow citizens who respect the victims’ memory for a new flashmob on Sunday, 18 September 2016 at 4 p.m. Let us bring our stones, candles, photos and keepsakes again, let us restore and renew the Living Memorial! Let us show to the provocateurs that we have no fear and we are determined to continue our protest against historical lies.

Activists arriving to the site were glad to see that the loss had been smaller than what it first looked like. Memory stones proved to be as heavy and solid as the memories associated with them. In an afternoon’s corporate effort, Living Memorial was not only restored, but looked greater than ever. The volunteers are ready to continue the work of tikkun olam at Szabadság Square.

Katalin Szlukovényi is a poet, literary translator and an instructor at several universities in Budapest, with a PhD in modern English and American literature. She graduated from Paideia's One Year Program as a Bruno Schulz fellow in 2016.

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