This article was written as part of the East Art Mags residency programme, in partnership with Artalk.cz. The programme is supported by the Visegrad Fund.
One of the greatest scandals of the 2014 Holocaust Memorial Year was clearly the erection of the monument commemorating the victims of the German invasion of Hungary. The statue’s plain symbolism suggests that Hungarian society was solely the victim of the events during the German – and not Nazi (!?) – occupation, and had no responsibilities in the course of the events. This message triggered serious indignation. The government backed down at first and promised consultations, but finally and opposing all of what they had promised, after winning the elections, they erected the original monument. However, the finished statue has not been inaugurated since– partly because of the civil protest taking place at the statue since the day it was erected, organized by Eleven Emlékmű/Szabadságszínpad (Living Memorial / Stage of Freedom).
This monument is only one out of the several hundred that the Fidesz-KDNP government, governing since 2010, erected throughout the country on the occasion of different memorial years in the name of “respectful remembering.” There has not been much reaction in the press to most of the recently erected public statues representing historical traumas, though there would be plenty of topics to talk about.
During the 20th century, paradigms have shifted several times in the international discourse about shaping collective memories, involving the strategies of staging art in public places and erecting monuments. Robert Musil stated already in the 1920s that
monuments are invisible for modern people, and pointed out the authoritarian nature of the practice that is first and foremost monopoly of the state.
The 60s and the 70s were decades of experimentation, artists were trying to break out of the traditional boundaries of participation and reception with street happenings, performances or site specific artworks. Discussions about the proper ways of processing the previously unspoken traumas of the 20th century have started in the 90s in many places; these dialogues, using the results of artistic experimentations of the preceding decades, as well, motivated the erection of new kinds of monuments and creation of institutions to display historical traumas and to help processing them.
According to Mechtild Widrich, art historian, the idea that demonstrates the attitude change following the discussions is that
erecting monuments should not serve those in power, but the community.
She does not approach historical traumas through the concept of nation, but addresses the citizen as an individual, by this thematizing the relationship between the individual and the power. This is how she makes one’s understanding of past events enhance personal and political responsibility taking in the present and the future.
In the post-socialist countries these approaches could only appear after the political transformation. In Hungary the concepts resonated among the independent artists, however they were not well received by politicians: apart from a couple marginalized instances, the governments have followed the traditional model of erecting statues and monuments. It is represented remarkably by the number of the more than 12 000 public statues – at least according to the records of kozterkep.hu’s database, operated by civilians.
The first Fidesz government (1998-2002) had good instincts and understood the importance of thematizing historical remembrance and its political benefits, not only in their rhetoric. They started to erect statues and monuments and established institutions focusing on historical traumas. In 2000, on the occasion of the millennial of the foundation of Hungary, several hundred monuments were erected throughout the country to strengthen national identity. It was the same period when the House of Terror was opened to display the horrors of the Arrow-Cross and Communist dictatorships. The institution (situated in a place of historical importance: first it was the head office of the Hungarist Party, then that of the Communist State Security) has been largely criticised from the beginning, primarily because of the relativization and one-sided interpretation of the events and the nation’s responsibility.
The decision on the foundation of the Holocaust Memorial Center was made in the same time, but the Socialist-Liberal government realized it that had more respect for the institution’s professional independence. After winning the elections in 2010 and in 2014, the re-elected Fidesz started dealing with these topics again, and by this time they used them with a clearly programmatic approach to illustrate central concepts of the propaganda, like “national sovereignty” and the persistent offenses of “external forces.” Important elements of this narrative were the “artistic” representations of historical traumas appearing in public spaces.
In 2013 and 2014 the government formed two committees to organise three memorial anniversaries of historical traumas: in 2014 it was the Holocaust, in 2016 the Hungarians hauled to Gulag in 1944-45, and the Memorial Year of the 1956 Revolution. Among the open tenders announced by the committees there was at least one every time that was for the erection of a new public monument, without any specific limitations regarding form and content. The first two tenders gave only one or one and a half months until deadline for submitting the plans. In the case of the submitted designs for the Holocaust Memorial Year, János Lázár, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, made the decisions, and in the case of the submissions for the 1956 Memorial Year it was Zoltán Balogh, Minister of Human Resources. In the case f the Gulag Memorial Year a committee decided, with 13 members delegated by the Hungarian Academy of Arts, an institution that is completely loyal to the government in every respect.
Both the course of the tenders and the evaluations involve many ethical and professional problems. The project’s seriousness started to become dubious when decisions were made based on unclear criteria, without involving unbiased professionals, with deadlines that made the submission of high quality plans impossible. They have not been submitted indeed.
Uninspired repetition of several symbols characterizes almost all the monuments erected during these years. The Star of David, the railway tracks, the barbed wire and the tombstones with gravels represent the Holocaust. The flag with a hole and birds represent 1956, and railway tracks and barbed wire return in the case of the Gulag memorial year. Besides all of these, typical examples of figural genre kitsch appear on some of these monuments. Hardly any of these recently erected pieces hold any deeper meaning; they represent only meaningless formalism, without any reference to space or time.
But what was all this good for? Why the erection of several hundred inadequate public statues is necessary?
The value and the significance of these monuments are not measured by the professional and social dialogue taking place during their planning; neither by the artistic solutions that are the result of an agreement. The significance of these pieces becomes clear in the light of the government’s communication and the view of history behind it.
Though referring to completely different historical events, these memorial years have the same message: tragedies happen when the Hungarian state loses its national sovereignty, when national will is oppressed by an external force.
Nazi and Communist dictatorships appear here together without any historical objectivity, they do not even try to make an effort to understand the power mechanisms of the different systems. As it was shown in the case of the Monument commemorating the victims of the German invasion, Hungarian society is solely represented in this narrative as the innocent, passive sufferer of the events. In this over-simplifying view of history only those are highlighted who risked their own lives to resist oppression, this way these marginalized personal histories become the single, unreflective reference point for contemporary national identity. The government depicts itself as the inheritor of this heroic attitude in its rhetoric, poses as the protector: saving the country from the offending external forces, let it be Soviet, or the European Union, Moscow or Brussels, or even only a single person, George Soros.
For this reason public monuments are not places of respectful remembering but instruments of contemporary political populism: remembrance of national history becomes the government’s props for self-legitimization.
On the occasion of the three memorial years approximately 500 monuments have been inaugurated or re-inaugurated, affecting a major share of the 3000 Hungarian cities and villages. It can be suspected that the statue craze has another, much more concrete result, as well: the local or national Fidesz politicians appear on these inauguration ceremonies as representatives of national past, and by monopolizing national identity, and by using history, culture and art as pretext, they simply strengthen the party’s presence in the countryside.
Following the Holocaust memorial year, the government’s distortion of memory politics was loudly criticised by Budapest intellectuals in the case of the 1956 memorial programs, as well. This might be the reason why the government tried not to grab the attention of the people of Budapest in the case of the Gulag memorial year. Probably the event representing it most took place in this February when an enormous Gulag monument was inaugurated at an old railway station in Budapest, almost completely unnoticed.
There is no public art in Hungary. Public spaces are under governmental control; functions of political representation overwrite aesthetics, quantity rules over quality, symbolic meaning comes before reality. These artworks show none of the aspects Widrich talks about: they do not serve anyone or anything, they are only set elements for political propaganda. They are not the symbolic manifestations of the memorial political dialogues, but they try to hide the absence of this dialogue by trying to fill the gap it leaves behind.
Translation by Eszter Greskovics
Cover photo: Unknown artist: 1956 memorial, Mihályi, Hungary, 2016. Photo: kozterkep.hu