Across the United States, statues of Confederate figures are finally being removed from public spaces. Considering that these statues embody a shameful heritage of racism — and the majority of Americans want them gone — taking them down would seem pretty open-and-shut, not to mention long overdue. (And I, for one, would be happy to relocate all of them to the bottom of a river.) But opponents claim to be worried about one issue in particular: “Those statues represent our history. If we remove them, we run the risk of forgetting an important chapter of our past.”
Assuming that this concern is genuine, I have some great news: Hungary came up with a solution for this problem decades ago.
When European communism fell in the autumn of 1989, the people of Central and Eastern Europe turned their attention to the unwanted statues that had loomed over their lives for generations. Marx, Engels, and Lenin preached the gospel of the proletariat by the bus stop, stoic stone soldiers kept the peace over busy intersections, noble and anonymous workers stood proudly at the gates of factories, and cheery red stars and hammers-and-sickles adorned buildings all over. Each one of those symbols was a dagger in the heart of freedom-loving citizens.
The Eastern Europeans did not wait long to remove those statues; most were torn down within weeks, or even days, and tossed onto the trash heap of history. And I can promise you: More than 30 years later, nobody is in danger of “forgetting” the dark days of communism.
In Budapest, however, they took a slightly different approach. Some entrepreneur gathered some the city’s rejected statuary to display in a big field on the outskirts of town. And today Memento Park still welcomes visitors.
I’ve been to Memento Park several times since 1999. (I even wrote up a self-guided tour of the statues in our Rick Steves Budapest guidebook.) And each visit is a surreal experience.
The valiant Red Army soldier charges boldly toward…nowhere in particular. Vladimir Lenin and Béla Kun energetically preach their socialist ideology to each other. And the happy children of the Young Pioneers remain so very proud to embody the false optimism of a worldview that has long since expired.
While it’s possible that a few nostalgic old-timers come here to get misty-eyed about the “good old days” of communism, it’s clear to me that the vast majority of visitors are here to ogle these monstrosities, to learn about the era they represent…and to take a “victory lap” around the now-pitiful remains of a failed empire. For those seeking historical context, archival photographs show the statues in situ. Because, obviously, you don’t need to keep a symbol of oppression in a prominent place just to ensure that it’s remembered.
In Sofia, the field behind the Museum of Socialist Art hosts a similar gathering of statuary. Here, too, the towering monuments offer a taste of what it would have been like to live in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. But the nice thing is that, whenever you’re ready, you can leave the museum and never think about it again.
I still vote for entirely removing symbols of hatred and oppression. But perhaps sequestering a few in a museum would be a suitable compromise. And I must admit, some small part of me is glad that a representative sampling of communist statuary still exists, tucked away from public view. With proper context, Memento Park is a fascinating place to learn about a bygone era. But the best part is that the many people who associate these figures with trauma never have to see them…unless they want to come and thumb their nose at a vanquished foe.