History and Culture, The political use of...

The political use of memory: The Budapest Memorial

On a recent trip to Budapest, Hungary I was astonished by the beauty of the city. The calm and majesty of Buda, the trendiness and liveliness of Pest, the weirdness of the local language, and the history of Budapest caught me off guard and really left a great impression on me.

Amongst all that, we discovered a memorial on Szabadság ter (Freedom Square). Built in memory of the victims of the nazi occupation, the monument is, however, the object of controversy since the start of its construction. It needs to be added that the erection of the memorial was finished during a night of July 2014, by workers who had been escorted and protected by 100 policemen.

The apple of discord

The monument is made of several elements: a statue of Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary, and a gruesome imperial eagle representing the nazis. Built to commemorate the death of all the Hungarians following the invasion by Germany in 1944, the meaning of the installation is however harshly contested by the civil society and the opposition who invoke historical facts to counteract the government’s “official history”.

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The construction raises number of questions: what role did the Hungarian government play in the Second World War? What was their bargain with Germany? Who did what? But above all, the question is: can a country who collaborated with offenders (here nazi Germany) be considered occupied? According to the monument, Hungary was yet another victim of Germany. According to its detractors, Hungary called for it by collaborating with Germany – the government played with the devil when they decided to take some distances when they realised the situation was getting bad and Germany was accumulating more and more losses.

What really happened? (for more, click here and here)

In November 1940, although not fascist himself, Miklas Horthy, the anticommunist regent and virtual dictator of Hungary, reluctantly aligned Hungary with Hitler, hoping to keep the country away from Soviet domination. Right-wing individuals also pushed for this option. When Germany turned onto Russia in 1941, they asked Hungary to mobilize their troops to support the war effort. The Hungarian 2nd Army was decimated by the USSR in 1943, following which Horthy looked into withdrawing from the alliance with Germany, and into building stronger connections with Western powers. Hearing about this plan, the Germans kidnapped Horthy and replaced him by Ferenc Szalasi, leader of the fascist Arrow Cross Party, who organised harsher repression against the Jewish populations. The country was finally liberated by the Red Army in December 1944.

Controversial memory 

The memorial is clearly trying to separate Hungary from the nazis, saying that all the horrors that were committed had been done under threats and obligations, or perpetrated directly by the Germans. This is where memory counts; because the Hungarian civil society remembers the facts differently. The government’s version omits to say that deportations and terror started well before 1944 when Szalasi took power; Miklas Horthy passed a series of anti-Semitic laws from 1920, as well as organized the deportation of  Jews. In addition, there were supporters of the fascist movement in Hungary who collaborated with the nazis, placed the Jews in ghettos and organised their deportations. 20150731_173115

The Hungarian population is split on the matter. When asked whether they agree with the monument, 38% say they are against, 38% in favour, the rest uncertain or neutral. There is therefore a need for political dialogue which includes all groups, parties and opinions, in order to define a common history for the country. An official dialectic cannot be made unilaterally by the government without the consent of the population.

Social activists have thus contested the memorial project from the beginning. Baffled by the fact the monument was still being built despite the fact that a fringe of the population demanded that a referendum would be organized to settle the question, which was rejected by the Parliament, they organized. The monument surroundings are now covered in memorabilia, artifacts, posters and explanations of why they oppose the installation. They also set up a space for people to discuss the problematic next to the statue. They offer a platform for discussion, thus doing what the government should have done.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and those who created and erected the monument are accused of “falsifying the Holocaust” by getting a monument “confusing the murderer and the victim” erected “in the shelter of the night.” [They] accused Orbán of dishonouring all Jewish, Roma and gay victims of the Holocaust, and added that it was “characteristic of the regime that it did not dare set up the statue of falsehood during the day.”(EurActiv) 20150731_172801

Memory is a powerful political tool which can be used to justify certain actions. Failing to recognize that the government of Hungary took part in spreading terror in Hungary before and during the Second World War is falsifying history. Horty most certainly acted to secure the interests of his country, hoping to be on the winning side for once. They probably felt pressured by their German ally to follow their lead. Those are mitigating factors, not excuses.

With the rise of Orban in Hungary accompanying the spread of far right movements across Europe, there is a need to explore history in order to build memories as close as the facts. History must not be allowed to be distorted for any reason, especially to justify xenophobic or racists policies.

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Ted Talk of the Week, The political use of...

The political use of fear

I decided that I would listen to a Ted Talk every morning while having breakfast. The point is to keep my brain going from the beginning of the day, but not necessarily on political or topical subjects. Every week, I will pick the one that made me reflect the most. I will post it here, and share my views with you.

Fear triggers creativity, “a constructive response” as David Rothkopf puts it. Other times, the result is not positive. The speaker details how 9/11 pushed the American to act out of fear and take disproportionate measures in response. Al Qaeda was at the time a small group of insurgents, whose ranks swole with the deployment of the international troops in Afghanistan and later with the US’s unlawful mission to Iraq. The response was thus wrong. The fact that the crises are still ongoing there proves that point. The American response was not appropriate and ignored the bigger trends, that of change and innovation. The response failed to incorporate those elements and the power of hybrid warfare.

OSCE, Ukraine and fear 

At the beginning of the week, I went to a conference organized by the Egmont Institute, where the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project presented their preliminary report on the situation in Ukraine, as mandated by the OSCE. The panelists discussed their achievements so far, all in agreement that something needed to be done in order to stabilize the region. The Russian representative, Prof. Sergey Karaganov, of course stood in opposition to the rest of the participants, calling for the right for countries to act as they please. This two edged-sword comment could be indeed interpreted several ways, as it is both positive and negative. Positive because it thus allows Ukraine to choose its own path, a path which was leading it towards the West until Moscow put his veto; negative because it also justifies Russia’s actions, its right to react when it feels endangered. This should make the West, and especially Russia’s neighbouring countries, feel frightened because there is no longer any certainty on how Russia acts, or how far they are willing to go in order to feel secure again.

Another panelist focused on the element of fear. Sir Robert Cooper, the British representative, called on the audience to take fear into consideration in regards to the situation in Ukraine. The crisis there is only one element of Russia’s strategy to protect itself and regain power in the region. And fear will make those standing against him, i.e. Western European countries and those wishing to partner with them, more eager to fight off Moscow in order to avoid a war on the Old Continent.

Let’s go back to the Cold War for a second: the reason why there was no direct confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was because both parties wanted to avoid a war in Europe (kinetic or nuclear) – the First and the Second World Wars at least had this positive effect. It was the fear that another conflict would tear Europe apart again which forced the use of proxy wars. Cmdr (Res) Kurt Engelen, in accordance with the work of Mr. Janis Berzins, rightly analyzes that we are indeed being constantly attacked by Russia. Combined with the fact that Putin declared, already in 2007, that his country was at war to stop the Western expansionism towards the East and South, we must take this into consideration and act upon it. This war which does not say its name is hybrid and indirect, but it is there. The situation is much more uncertain than during the Cold War because there is no tacit agreement by both parties that there would be no direct attacks. This time, the game has no rules, at least according to Moscow. The latter wants to change the status quo which is in its disadvantage as its former sphere of influence is slowly running away from it. We should fear the consequences of that ambition because we triggered it. And that fear should be the element which will push the endangered countries and populations’ forces together to combat the common enemy.

It is believed by some that only fear will make us react to the threats we are facing. But what if fear makes us act irrationally like the Americans did?

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