Budapest Telegraph

Some memorials heal wounds - others tear them open

Monday Aug 4, 2014

editor | Source: Budapest Telegraph

A WWII memorial in Budapest's Szabadság Square, whose plan was officially announced in the dying hours of 2013 and was to be unveiled on March 19, was eventually completed on July 20. Its sculptor meant it to pay homage to the victims of Hungary's occupation by Germany in 1944.

The memorial stirred such a controversy that in recent months hardly any days passed without the Hungarian media carrying views for or against it. The plan to erect it was not preceded by any debate in society, among politicos or in the artistic community. A group of dedicated people demonstrated against it near the cordoned off construction site every day for about four months because they argued that it falsifies history. Among the personalities commenting on the project this year have been historians, fine artists, the prime minister and other politicians, Holocaust survivors, Jewish organizations, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the embassy each of Germany and the United States.

Perhaps the most severe critical observation is that the memorial distorts history. Says historian Krisztián Ungváry: “Its symbols and meaning are not just imprecise – they are downright false.”

[The memorial is one of the issues the eminent historian Ignác Romsits discusses in an interview that you can read here.]

Excerpts from the description of the design of the memorial by its sculptor, Péter Párkányi Raab:

Its allegorical figures evoke motifs of cultural history … two cultures are evoked: one of the figures considers itself the stronger and more aggressive one and towers above the other one (thanks to an architectural backdrop and a tympanum) whose features are peaceful. The peaceful one is Archangel Gabriel that stands for Hungary. In cultural and religious history, Archangel Gabriel is a man of God… In [the millennial memorial in Budapest’s] Heroes Square, Archangel Gabriel is high above the clouds [atop a column]. In my design Gabriel is subjugated and pushed close to the ground … Gabriel’s figure is attractive and peaceful. The angel has a perfect body and there is no fright in his eyes. His face is quiet and his eyes are closed. … This ruined culture is subjugated by a stronger one, the Third Reich, that is, the imperial eagle representing the Nazis. In its idiom of form, the eagle is the opposite of Gabriel. The eagle reminds us of the one that was once mass-produced on placards and badges. That eagle aspires to rule the world. In the memorial it is about to reach us and conquer Hungary.


In January Krisztián Ungváry commented on Párkányi Raab’s ideas. 

  1. The events of 1944 were too complex to be described as the fight between “evil” Germans and “good” Hungarians. Eichmann, for instance, was impressed by the cooperativeness of Hungarians. He said Hungarians must be descendants of the Huns because nowhere else did he see such cruelty in “solving the Jewish question”
  2. The German occupation did not subjugate the population of Hungary. Instead, it enabled the rightwing elite to redistribute the assets of some 800 000 people. The beneficiaries – and they were numerous – hardly felt “subjugation” of any kind.
  3. Until 1944 Hungary was a safe haven for many people except the Jews. By then over a hundred anti-Jewish statutes had been adopted and there had been pogroms in several Hungarian-speaking localities: 1938: Kisvárda, Szabolcs–Szatmár–Bereg county, 1942: Munkács [Mukacheve, Ukraine] and Máramarossziget [Sighetu Marmației], Romania; mass murder: 1942: 700 Jews were killed in what is today northern Serbia, and about 17 000 persons were deported to Kamianets-Podilskyi [Ukraine] to be murdered there. [In January 2014 Sándor Szakály, head of the new-fangled historical think tank, “Veritas”, dismissed that deportation as a routine law-enforcement move to control stateless persons. His words provoked angry reactions.] Thousands of Jews were sent to Russia in detachments of forced laborers. By 1944 more than 10 000 Hungarian Jewish forced laborers had died.
  4. The German armed forces did not commit any mass murder of Hungarians. What can be called as mass murder was entirely prepared and in part executed by the Hungarian authorities. As early as 1941 recommendations were submitted to the Hungarian parliament to concentrate all Jews into ghettoes. Prime Minister Miklós Kállay and Regent Miklós Horthy stalled a plenary vote on ghettoization. By March 1944 the Hungarian authorities had been fully prepared to put end to the existence in Hungary of hundreds of thousands of people. Before the Jews were put in boxcars, they had to settle their water, electricity and gas bills.

Párkányi Raab is understood to have pocketed HUF 211 million + VAT (USD 1.1 million) for the job and is presumed to have asked merely two months to make it. 

Párkányi Raab responded to his detractors:

I was astonished to learn that my hastily jotted description of the design of the memorial  was published and vilified. … Archangel Gabriel’s hands are wide open. He holds an orb surmounted by a cross. The orb is about to fall out of his hand. That detail has been overlooked by my critics though that tiny object is the focal point of the design. The Hungarian state, and the victims, are symbolized by the orb that is about to fall from the hand of Gabriel, patron of Hungary. Archangel Gabriel defended us for a thousand years but now he closed his eyes as the imperial eagle attacks him.

Gábor Borókai, editor in chief of the weekly Heti Válasz, also weighed in:

None of the authorities deny or slight the Holocaust. The president, the prime minister and senior diplomats have admitted that the Hungarian state was guilty when in 1944 it did not defend so many of its citizens from deportation to death camps. Among other institutions, the Holocaust Museum of Budapest and Hódmezővásárhely and the House of Terror remind visitors of that tragedy.

Krisztián Ungváry retorted on

Some leading politicians have honestly admitted the responsibility of the Hungarian nation…. The new memorial should be interpreted in the context of Fidesz’s new politics of memory (Erinnerugspolitik). In the official discourse, Hungary’s occupation by Germany blocked the honest Hungarians efforts to save the Jews. The German occupation is an excuse to forgive Hungarians for what they did.

Historian Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror museum, disagreed:

It is claimed that Hungary was ally of the Third Reich so the Nazis didn’t even occupy Hungary. If that claim is extended, then Hungary’s occupation by the Nazis on March 19, 1944, could be called a “fraternal assistance” in the same vein as the Soviet army “assisted” Hungary, its ally, on November 4, 1956, onwards. Yes, the same Soviet army that “liberated” us in 1945 and then stayed on Hungarian soil for about half a century.

Schmidt: They claim the memorial makes no difference between killer and victim. In their view it is conceivable that a man persecutes Jews but is then killed in the war. Wars not discriminate between innocent and wicked people. Potentially all war memorials fail to discriminate between murderer and victim. Think, for instance, of the Soviet WWII memorial [also in Szabadság Square]. It pays tribute to Soviet soldiers who raped over 100 000 Hungarian women, plundered and terrorized Hungary. Why don’t the same demonstrators protest against that memorial?

Schmidt: The argument that the Hungarian state was not innocent even before the Nazi occupation because of the anti-Jewish laws and the deportation in 1941 of over 10 000 stateless Jews, doesn’t refute the fact that the occupation and its consequences were tragic. You don’t become a victim by being innocent. You become a victim if you suffer from the aggression of a stronger enemy. … Some groups attempt to benefit from the tragic fate of their forebears; they attempt to win victim status for generations that never suffered any discrimination. Such a conduct would have serious consequences. If victim status becomes inheritable, the status of perpetrator will also become inheritable. … People who elaborated the historiography of the Communist dictatorship are now attempting to prevent us – 70 years after the tragedy – from paying tribute to every Hungarian victim of Nazi occupation. They wish to tell us who we can mourn and who we can’t. … With such conduct they exclude themselves from our national community because they reject the idea that all tragedies that befell to the Hungarians could be redeemed in our common mourning.

Schmidt: The arguments against the memorial are unjust and are an insult to the well-meaning Hungarians. Those detractors attempt to portray the Hungarians as more inferior and wicked than the Nazis; they don’t discriminate between murderer and his accomplice. Implicitly they claim that the Nazis played a secondary role in deporting and murdering Jews while the real and only perpetrators were the Hungarians. Such claims are not borne out by the facts of history. Such detractors wish to flatter the Germans and other foreign powers.

In separate articles, historians Mária M. Kovács and Krisztián Ungváry wrote a lengthy response to what Schmidt wrote in Népszabadság. See those articles in Hungarian here and here respectively.The scope of this account does not allow us to provide details of those two historical treatises.


In May a conference was organized by the Philosophy and Historiography Section of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The title of the conference was “Historical Memory and Historiography.” During the conference several full members of the Academy criticized the memorial.


Among other Jewish organizations, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Hungary (MAZSIHISZ) protested against the plan of the memorial and recommended that there should be a public debate that would promote social reconciliation. MAZSIHISZ sent a letter to Viktor Orbán asking to cancel the project to build the memorial and to release from his post Sándor Szakály because of his public statements. MAZSIHISZ wrote that unless its requests are fulfilled, it would boycott the programs of the Holocaust Memorial Year.

Several Hungarian Jewish organizations declined to use grant money awarded by the central treasury to finance memorial events.


Orbán responded to MAZSIHISZ in a letter:

The campaign [to the parliamentary elections] began on February 15. I concede that this time is unsuitable for an empathetic and reasonable dialogue, he wrote. Orbán requested that negotiations about the controversial matters be resumed after Easter, that is, after the parliamentary elections.


The completion of the memorial in Szabadság Square was thus postponed to May. However, just a few days after the parliamentary elections, what conspicuously did not commence was a meaningful dialogue. Instead, the construction of the memorial got under way. Since then protest demonstration has been going on at the construction site.


The demonstrators created what they call a “Living Memorial” that consists – not of dead stones – but conversations, the personal belongings of Holocaust survivors and photos of the people slain in death camps. Several leftwing politicians were among the speakers of the ongoing demonstrations. They slashed historical aspects and symbols of the planned memorial.


From a biblical point of view, the use of Archangel Gabriel as the symbol of the victims was criticized in public also by art historian Katalin Dávid (81) – one of the most respected authorities on Christian art in Hungary – and István Jelenits (82) – arguably the best known Piarist theologian in Hungary.


In an interview with Heti Válasz Katalin Dávid said:

Overall, I oppose the building of new memorials because there are already too many of them. However, if the Hungarian state intends to commemorate March 19, 1944, well, it has the right to do so. But as it turned out, I read the sculptor’s essay in which the symbol of Hungary is Archangel Gabriel, who is attacked by the German eagle. Wait a minute! Archangel Gabriel as the symbol of Hungary?? I thought I should stop the person I like [Viktor Orbán] from approving such a project. That is why I wrote a memorandum addressed to Viktor Orbán and sent it to his aides. In that memorandum I explained why Gabriel cannot be a symbol of Hungary. Every archangel has the name of God in his name. “El” – for the Israelites that was the oldest name of God. Micha-el, Gabri-el, Rapha-el. These archangels help the world in “communicating” with God. Saint Augustine was of the view that we should refer to them as patrons, not as symbols.

Reporter: What if that angel doesn’t represent Hungary but the victims – Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians – the way Viktor Orbán interprets it?

Katalin Dávid: Oh, so the description of that memorial could be changed so easily? An angel can be the symbol of several things, including the victims. But how do you define the notion of victim? Actually, I have given thought to that question. Not the way the demonstrators around the construction site are doing it because they are not looking for a way how to turn this project into something good. Well, the word victim is holy. Without that there is no relationship between God and man and there is no turning our attention to God. Who were the victims as from March 19, 1944? I for one, a member of the ruling class, certainly was not. Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky [June 6, 1886 – Sopronkőhida, December 24, 1944, politician, an important voice against German expansion; hanged by the Hungarian authorities] and the Hungarian Jews certainly were. Every single Hungarian Jew – even those who survived because they found helpers. Victims were also the Christians who militantly opposed to the Nazis. Now then, for whom is this memorial meant? We shouldn’t use the phrase “innocent victim” because a victim is by definition innocent. The holiest among victims is Christ – Lamb of God.


Orbán responded to Dávid’s memorandum in a letter. He described the memorial as precise and spotless from a moral point of view and in the historical content of its gestures. Orbán defended the choice of the angel as a symbol. He admitted though that the Hungarian political leaders of the time had to face divine and human justice for being collaborators. See the full text of the letter in English here.


Piarist monk István Jelenits responded to an editorial by Gábor Borókai. Jelenits wrote that the historical events related to Hungary’s German occupation were too complex to be perpetuated by a memorial. The memorial, Jelenits, wrote, should be non-figurative.


Several critical observations were voiced from outside Hungary. The embassy of Germany found it regrettable that the decision on the memorial was made lightning fast, without a broad debate. 

Thirty senators of the United States wrote a letter about the matter:

“While we understand and greatly appreciate the desire to honor all Hungarians brutalized during the Nazi occupation, we also believe that Hungary’s remaining Jewish population should participate in determining the appropriate way to remember the suffering of Hungary’s Jews during this period. They too share in the Hungarian historical narrative and it is their leadership’s opinion that the current proposal whitewashes the fact that there were Hungarians complicit with the systematic murder of their relatives.”


The memorial was set up in its final form amidst massive security measures in the dead of night on Sunday, July 20.


This is what the Hungarian News Agency (MTI) wrote:

János Lázár, minister heading the Prime Minister’s Office, told a news conference in Budapest Monday that the memorial to the victims of German occupation will not be officially dedicated. Responding to a question, he said that the government brought the right decision to desist from celebrating. The government honors the public debate of previous weeks and refrains from an unveiling ceremony.

Said Lázár: “We attempted to act in an honest and conscientious manner. Perhaps we committed mistakes, not coordinating our activities appropriately, and that may have cast a negative light to our decision-making.” Lázár said the government’s intention is to make it clear with this memorial that without German occupation the Jews of Hungary wouldn’t have been deported and the Hungarian Holocaust wouldn’t have taken place. Lázár added that emphasizing that without German occupation there wouldn’t have been deportation of Jews does not mean that the Hungarian government and public administration of the time did not have personal and collective responsibility for what happened.

The multilingual inscriptions of the memorial also came under criticism. Many find the Hebrew inscription downright erroneous and the Russian one clumsy. There is a detailed analysis of the inscriptions in Hungarian here. The translations were made under the auspices of the Hungarian Office for Translation and Attestation Ltd. The English inscription of the memorial – “In memory of victims” – misses a definite article.

János Lázár responded to critical observations about the inscriptions. There will be an inquiry, he said. If mistakes are found in them, they will be corrected – he promised.

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