Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
One thing my late professor of art and architecture Vincent Scully taught me is this: Just as music is the silence between the notes, so architecture is the dialogue among the buildings and the landscape.
Professor Scully’s deeper scholarship is beyond my ability to engage with intelligently. But being in Budapest makes me mindful of a more obvious level of dialogue among buildings and monuments, the representation of a nation’s history.
Much of Hungary’s difficult modern history is told along a 700-meter stretch of Budapest from Szabadsag ter (Liberty Square) to the parliament building. At the center of the semi-circular northern portion of Liberty Square stands a obelisk-like monument with a Cyrillic inscription dedicated to “Soviet heroes” who liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation. It is a testament to Hungarians’ historical memory that they chose not to demolish this monument after the Cold War.
The parliament building at the other end of this stretch gestures simultaneously forward and backward in time relative to the Soviet monument. Built in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and modeled on Westminster, with a restored (in 2016) equestrian statue of the 19th century Hungarian statesman Count Andrassy before it, the parliament building is a relic from the more cultured past. But it also represents a vision of parliamentary democracy that, during the Communist era, could only be an aspiration for the future.
In the building immediately across the street from parliament, metal pellets in its exterior walls and columns mark the bullet holes left from the 1956 Hungarian uprising, which the Soviet Union suppressed by sending in the Red Army.
From here, moving directly back toward the monument to Soviet soldiers, we see a bronze memorial of Imre Nagy. Nagy was the leader of Hungary during the 1956 uprising who tried to move the country toward multi-party democracy. He was tried and executed in secret in 1958. The design of this memorial is quite wonderful. Nagy stands at the mid point of a bridge that seems to connect Hungary’s past and future, its parliament and its Communist legacy. Nagy has his hands resting pensively on the railing, as though contemplating his own tragic demise. Between Communism and democracy, though, Nagy’s choice is clear: his head is turned toward parliament.
Another stone’s throw away, between Nagy and the Soviet monument, stands a beaming statue of Ronald Reagan mid-stride as though embodying Hungary’s march to democracy. When I first saw this statue during my first visit to Budapest about a decade ago, I found its unsubtle optimism touching. But today it seems naive.
Indeed, the story of Hungary encapsulated in this stretch of Budapest’s public architecture is still ongoing. In 2014, the far right government of Viktor Orban (currently still the prime minister) installed a memorial to the Nazi occupation of Hungary at the south end of Liberty Square. It depicts Germany as an eagle like a Nazi insignia come to life. The eagle swoops down from above toward Archangel Gabriel, who, with outstretched arms, holds up an orb with a cross on it representing Hungary.
As soon as it was unveiled, the monument attracted much criticism and backlash. Some say that the memorial whitewashes the true history of Hungary’s role in WWII, during which it was allied with the Axis powers. Germany only invaded the country in 1944 after Hungary tried to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies. Moreover, during the war, many Hungarians were not exactly reluctant to assist Germany with its mass extermination of Jews and others. Other critics charge that the monument seems to suggest that Nazi occupation might not have been a bad thing. Does it perhaps glorify the eagle and what it represents?
The memorial is now also the site of, as it were, a counter memorial: Budapest citizens have spontaneously placed there photos and memorabilia of victims of the Fascist Hungarian government of that time. Lest we forget.
What will be said next in the ongoing dialogue?
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."