Magazine | December 18, 2017, Issue

Through the House of Terror

Remembering Hungary’s victims and perpetrators of totalitarianism

I entered a room and my senses were inundated by Communist propaganda. First, the sharp lush greens and yellows in idealized portraits of Hungarian workers in teeming fields and humming factories. Then bright mauves and siennas in a picture of “American bugs” devouring Hungarian agriculture. And then the stark red banners, and Comrade Stalin smiling his approval at me. I felt physical relief at the sight of it all. My tear ducts, which had been swelling all morning but never quite spilling their contents, started to relax. I was breathing easier. I wanted to spend half an hour relaxing in this benevolent Stalin’s line of vision. Because every other room in the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to the memory of the heroes and victims of the successive Fascist and Communist tyrannies in Hungary, was a trial, or pure misery. But in that one room you can glimpse the simulated utopia for which so much human happiness and so many human lives were destroyed.

The House of Terror was opened in 2002, under the direction of the first government led by Viktor Orban. The museum location at Andrassy Boulevard 60 is fitting. That building was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party, Hungary’s Fascist movement, and known then as the “House of Loyalty.” Later, under the Communists, the same building became the headquarters of the secret police. At the time the museum was opened, Orban’s government had the reputation of being firmly in the center-right camp of liberal consensus. And it seemed fitting that Hungary would open a museum that, as our guides explained on my visit, “has no double standards” when it comes to condemning Fascism and Communism. Indeed, the two regimes have shared guilt: Some of Hungary’s liberals and democrats were hauled into that building and tortured by both of Hungary’s totalitarian regimes.

The entrance to the House of Terror is filled with moody music, and dominated by the logos of the successive regimes, suggesting an equal evil between them, though the museum itself focuses more on the Communists. There is some reason for this emphasis beyond the much longer reign of the Communists. Hungary also hosts a Holocaust museum, and a haunting memorial along the banks of the Danube: sculptures of shoes to memorialize the victimization of Jews who were asked to remove their valuable footwear before they were shot and their bodies dumped into the river. The regime saved bullets by binding the victims together, allowing the shot victim to drag the others to their deaths in the freezing water.

The lobby of the House of Terror is menaced by a hulking World War II–era Soviet tank, sitting within a beam of light from above, and pictures of Hungarian victims of the regime. On this centennial year of the Communist putsch in Russia, it is distressing to note that the House of Terror is one of the few museums in the world that document and educate the public about the enormities of the Communist system. There are no illusions here about the good intentions of socialists, only a grim realism about their awful deeds.

Hungary’s misery is partly told in a history of expulsions to labor and death camps. During the war, Hungary passed the most severe racial laws in Europe. Hungarians in charge of deporting Jews to death camps bragged proudly of their efficiency to their German counterparts. In about seven weeks in 1944 they sent 147 trains to Auschwitz, with 437,000 Jews in them. And Hungary’s regime advertised its proud ignorance. The Commissioner of the Press one day condemned all “Jewish books” to a death sentence, and began their destruction at a press conference.

Another installation illustrates the post-war expulsions of Hungarian people into the Russian Gulag. Some 600,000 were sent away from their homes to work camps. The room has an enormous map for its carpet. In one tiny corner is Budapest, but spreading out across the great expanse of the room are red and black dots, indicating the prison camps stretching along the Russian railroad lines like countless beads on a necklace, reaching all the way to the nickel mines of Siberia. Barely half of Hungary’s abducted people returned to their home country, some not until years after Communism’s collapse in Russia. And this crime was not the last of the forced expulsions. Even after the war, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans living in Hungary were expelled and resettled in Germany, many of them to concentration camps.

Walking through the museum, you can’t help but ask yourself how you would have coped with the twin terrors, what your strategy for survival might have been. But to its great credit, the House of Terror reveals the dispiriting truth that there is no reliable strategy for avoiding the gallows in a Communist regime like Hungary’s in the years after the war. A belief in socialism, loyalty to the Workers’ Party, and even close relationships with the regime’s top men were not sufficient to save you from the constant churn of purges or the opportunism of the monsters around you. A deputy director of the Hungarian secret police, Erno Szucs, tortured his own brother in that very building. Later, the leader of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, Matyas Rakosi, had both brothers beaten to death. Rakosi, a Hungarian Jew, participated unhesitatingly in Stalin’s mad anti-Semitic purges, giving up secret-police agents, his fellow Jews and officemates, as if they were nothing.

There are rooms dedicated to the resistance, particularly the resistance of Catholics who dissented from both regimes, including the great prince of the Church, Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, who had the honor of being imprisoned by Hungary’s Fascists and Communists. The Communists confiscated Church lands and used drummed-up pretexts to seize and secularize Catholic schools and hospitals, then they drummed up more pretexts to persecute the Church, which they condemned for providing nothing to Hungarian society. Mindszenty was condemned by a show trial, and imprisoned. He was granted temporary freedom during the 1956 revolution, and found amnesty in the United States embassy, where he stayed for 15 years, before his permanent exile was effected.

Finally, for those who can stomach it, there is the basement where the cells, torture chambers, and gallows are shown in all their dank horror. I confess I was overwhelmed contemplating the fate of prisoners who were locked in tiny closets, whose walls were lined with broken glass, so that when they collapsed in exhaustion, they destroyed their own bodies. Their forced confessions led to their continued imprisonment, or their continued torture, or their deaths. Even the deaths of loved ones.

Perhaps it was the references to the “twin occupations” I heard that made me wonder if someone a little more innocent than I am could go through the museum without recognizing the horrible truth: Hungarians were not just victims of these totalitarian movements, but many were perpetrators and enthusiastic collaborators. The final room in my tour made this reality unmistakeable. There were the portraits of the men who worked in that building. Many of them lived long after the collapse of the regime. A few still live, and presumably convalesce among the children of others they tormented and terrorized. The world has not reckoned with the crimes of Communist regimes. But here in this one corner of Budapest, they’ve started. You look, and you cannot turn away. You cannot leave this House unchanged.

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