Unwanted Statues? A Modest Proposal, from Hungary

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.

33 Replies to “Unwanted Statues? A Modest Proposal, from Hungary”

  1. I marveled at the Hungarians approach to remembering their past. On a tour, we were introduced to the Angel of Freedom statue, which is encircled by pictures of holocaust victims, among the hundreds of thousands sent to prison camps.

    1. The statue you mentioned that depicts Hungary as an innocent angel attacked by the nazi eagle is in fact a recent and very controversial monument (not in the memento park but in a very central location in the city). A lot of people view this monument as a lie, because although under German occupation, but Hungarian authorities actively and readily cooperated in the Holocaust. In the light of the facts it is a lie to symbolise Hungary with an angel, denying responsibility.
      So people who disagree the message of the monument amended it with photos of their family members who were killed, but it was never designed like that.

      1. Yes, Aron–I’m well aware of that! I am not referring to that statue in any way. The one you describe is quite new and was erected on Szabadzszag ter only recently, by Fidesz, and is highly offensive to modern sensibilities. Like many Confederate monuments in the US, the statue you’re describing has sprouted a whole new collection of “protest” monuments (the photos you describe), which makes it a kind of double-monument: One represents the current Hungarian government’s whitewashing view of their own history, and the other is the real story told by Hungarians on the street. For what it’s worth, I think this monument should be taken down, too (though I am OK with it as long as they leave up the “protest” monuments as well).

  2. On one trip to Budapest, we took city bus out to Memento Park. It was really a great experience – walking among these gigantic statues on a windy hill. Thanks for the directions!

  3. I was at Momento Park October 2019. I felt a mix of, creepy, cartoonish, and educated. At first we didn’t realize what they were. There was a pamphlet in the English language. I would not have liked to have walked past these everyday. We also went to a torture museum in Nuremberg, Germany. Very well done, and very unsettling to be in for very long. A museum is the better place to display this kind of things

  4. The problem with your logic on this issue is that you are aiming at the “dark days of Communism,” in other words Joseph Stalin, who was a Communist in the same way WWE wrestling relates to the Olympics, and taking your anger out on Lenin and Marx who were valid intellectuals that, in Lenin’s case, lived through the oppressive police state of the Tsar and strived for a better, egalitarian future.

    To say that the statues of Lenin and Marx are the embodiment of oppression is to say that certain ideas should be regulated. That is very Trumpian-capitalist. I imagine capitalists were at the forefront of having those statues removed and some American money was behind it.

    1. Unfortunately, Marx’s writings were perverted by Lenin (and then by Stalin) into totalitarianism that was oppressive for the people who had to live under it. The optimism of the post-Revolutionary days died with Lenin – ever heard of the Great Famine? Stalin killed MILLIONS of his own people because they refused to yield to his will. Why do you think so many East Germans literally risked being shot down like dogs to cross the Berlin Wall? The Stasi was an utter horror show. And as for Hungary, a former co-worker of mine was a Hungarian who’d grown up under Communism and he had nothing good to say about it.

      Totalitarianism, whether it’s based on the divine right of kings or Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto, is awful. It stifles the arts – just look at those hideous statues! – and kills the spirit. Putting those statues in their own space is a good idea.

    2. Interesting point. (And this is the first time anyone has ever accused me of being “Trumpian.” Ouch.) I would say that even if the original motives of Marx, Engels, and Lenin were pure, those ideas metastasized into the brutal Stalin era. You don’t have the latter without the former, and therefore both are part of a broader regime that certainly grew into something oppressive. And Lenin himself was no Boy Scout; the tens of thousands murdered in the Red Terror disqualify him from admiration. Ask the Hungarian on the street if they’d like to re-erect their Lenin statues; I suspect they’ll tell you they are glad to be done with the lot of them. (To your point, in Russia they have kept up some–not all–Lenin statues, I presume to honor the revolution that he led against the Tsar. The only statue of Stalin I’ve seen in public is a low-profile bust of him, smirking, marking his grave just behind Lenin’s Tomb on Red Square. In any event, I for one am not interested in using Russia as a moral compass.)

      1. it is not true that “most” if us want them taken down that is a lie…it is our “history ” most people didnt even know they should be offended by it until just recently when they were told to be offended..

        1. Are you talking about statues of Confederate leaders in the US? The public view is not something we can all find out from anecdotes or asking our friends. Do some research: you will find that the majority of Americans are offended that these figures are still honored and commemorated by statuary in important civic areas.

        2. In fact, “merry”, polls do show the majority would like them taken down–not everyone, but, yes, a majority. Your insistence of “it is not true” is based upon…your gut feeling? A conversation you had with those around you waiting to get into a Trump rally? Other? These polls can be searched for online and actually read. Here’s a news source you probably trust: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/majority-back-removing-confederate-statues-but-split-on-renaming-bases-poll

    3. Nope. Marx was definitely an intellectual. The problem is that many people built upon and acted on his ideas without thinking on them critically. Marxism is a catastrophe that led to a long line of catastrophes, the worst in history. I agree with the idea of people – in the US and elsewhere – voting on whether they want certain statues in a public place – then coming to some kind of agreement and moving them in orderly fashion to a museum such as this. It seems reasonable to me: our public spaces help shape our present and future. At the same time, we don’t want to censor the past.

      1. Agreed. I’d like to see more decisions in America made through careful thought rather than off the cuff and through emotional outburst

        1. “Emotional outburst?” The removal of Confederate statues has been an important and much-discussed topic for decades, escalating in recent years. The recent wave of protests isn’t a sudden and unanticipated “outburst.” It’s the culmination of a long-overdue social movement. This has been going on for a long time. Perhaps you simply have not noticed, or wanted to.

          1. And they were not erected until 50 years after the war, as part of the Jim Crow era.

        2. I do not agree with taking down any statues. There were some taken down that had nothing to do with the War of Northern Attrition. Modern scholars over the last few decades have slowly been erasing the real reasons why that war came to blows. It was about states rights and money. Slavery only became an issue when a republican President Abe Lincoln used it to be re-elected in a second term. The north was tired of the war. They had their share of slaves also.
          In the south, owning slaves was very expensive and owners, which were the wealthy, were slowly going to another practice of share cropping.
          But a vast majority of Southern’s DID NOT own slaves. We are a very proud people and our roots run deep in our family heritages. That’s not to say that most of us don’t love America. I have had 3 generations of my family fight for this country so I don’t want to hear a word about loyalty.
          I’m a disabled veteran, but will still fight for freedom. So those of y’all who want to change history overnight, guess again. It’s not going to happen on my or most Americans watch. I do not know where you get your statistics from but mine come from my brothers and sisters throughout this great land.

  5. In Lithuania, Grutas Parkas is a park that was also created with Soviet era statues and sculptures that were removed from cities after independence.

  6. Sadly, Hungary has swung so far the other way in recent years that they’ll soon be making fascist statues for Orban and his ilk.

    1. I’d describe it as tourist-slash-educational. The key thing is that the statues are being preserved and presented carefully and with context, rather than simply being out and about in public.

      1. Dear Cameron,
        Thank you for sharing this. I always proposed to my American guests on our Life under Communism tour that the Statue Park is fine example to follow. With a pinch of salt I recommended they buy up all the statues in danger, hide them for a few years and open a profitable theme park. They just laughed. We learnt from the experience of 1956.

  7. I agree with relocation. Somebody posted this quote the other day from the novel 1984: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” G. Orwell, 1984

  8. I strongly agree with the Hungarian solution. In America, all the statues of Confederate generals are going to be irrelevant as long as pictures of Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson are staring at us every time we make a cash transaction.

  9. It is a great solution with real cultural power. But I am forced to remember that right now, Hungary has basically become a single-party authoritarian state … built on rhetoric of hatred and xenophobia, contempt for democracy and rule of law, etc. They say history doesn’t echo, it rhymes.

  10. The Hungarians and Lithuanians have taken a thoughtful and enlightened approach to the statue dilemma. Love it.

  11. Hi guys,
    This is from Hungary.
    There was an euphoria here in 1989, and we had a hope, better say, we were happy to get rid of the former dictatorship. Our dreams have vanished in the haze… Hungary became a real new dictatorship, where they only kill sometimes, when THEY need it, when something goes too close to the mafia’s (=government of Orbán) fields.
    The Statue Park is a fabulous thing. It is to face us to our past! However, this country is not able to do that. We keep trying to forget about our past, and falsify everything. The former Nazis after a while became Communist, and the same people after 1989 became Anti-Communist. Let me tell you what is the animal that can be compared to the Hungarian people’ spirit. It is Cameleon. If we would not change our colour according to the actual situation, we would not exist at all.
    The power keeps trying to set up pre-Communist (= Nazi) monuments all over in the country, led by the Governemnet in Budapest.
    The things they feel inconvenient, they cover or make them disappear…. Everything must fit into their mad dreams. While the Government is steeling approximatly 99% of the EU Funds, the people is starving. No health care, no education, no social policy. Racism, attacks against national minorities, and recently not only migrants, but the elderly and homeless, too. Anti-semitism, what else would you like to read about?
    HOWEVER, please, visit us, and myself and my great colleagues will show the country as it is in reality, and even if we are in danger for being the opposition , we won’t give it up.
    I have Rick’s book about Budapest. It is excellent. The ONLY TROUBLE IS that his informators have been biased! My copy of Rick’s book is full of notes, corrections. Are you reading this Rick? Are you interested in it? And are interested in a REAL presentation of Budapest? Just let me know, please.
    Anyway, if you guys, I mean anyone who can reach Hungary, we are here to help you and show you around as NOT A SHOPWINDOW agent, but the ones that have been living here, enjoying life here, and also suffering here.
    We are waiting for you all!

    All the best,
    Zoltan Nagy

  12. Memento Park was the highlight of my Hungarian trip. As seems so often true in my travels, the pictures don’t satisfactorily capture the experience. With every step I felt the weight of those huge faces and hands, the monoliths of a regime, pressing down on my spirit. I thought about the government that embraced this propaganda of power, and the artists who gave it substance. The vast open space of the field, the stern gazes from unyielding faces, the proof everywhere of a cruel and failed ideology. I learned about myself that day, even as I learned the facts behind each stature and the park itself. Surely there are hundreds if not thousands of sites across the US –abandoned racetracks, barracks, shopping malls, shooting ranges ,— that could be repurposed as an outdoor museum and graveyard for a sampling of statues from our own example of failed ideology.

  13. I think the museum idea MIGHT be a good one — but only IF there is accompanying each statue display a powerful message about its historical context, the history of the person’s role in the Civil War and in his life, and accompanying text from slaves who had to live this life.
    And there should be only one of these museums, maybe in DC, but not hundreds spread across the U.S.
    You have to be very careful about the number of these kinds of museums and the narrative presented, to ensure that the purpose is to call attention to the horrors of slavery and the treason of the Confederacy. Otherwise, the considerable number of people who think the Confederacy should have won, should be preserved, etc. will see such a musuem/park as a shrine. That would have the opposite effect of that desired.

    1. Agree 100%. As with Memento Park, the idea would be to document America’s heritage of racism and explain how it happened, how it evolved, and the importance of ending it. Germany has done an excellent job of creating a wide variety of “Nazi documentation centers” that exist to ensure there always remains a living record of the country’s lowest moment. Some fear that these could become a shrine for Nazi sympathizers, but they are carefully curated to ensure that never happens.

  14. I have really appreciated this thoughtful post and have shared it with numerous folks who have spouted the nonsense about preserving “history and heritage” – a thinly veiled racist reference to nostalgia for the era of slavery and everything that goes with it. However, the idea of destroying all of these or putting them in “the bottom of a river,” is, to me, too easy a solution. Part of the reason (PART, this is not a simple situation, obviously) that we have arrived at our current state of affairs is the idea that the Civil Rights Movement “fixed” everything, and that our work against racism was done. That false narrative is driving a lot of resistance from older white conservatives right now. I don’t know that it will ever be done, and destroying the statues, dusting off our palms, and proclaiming “mission accomplished” will, in my opinion, only make the problem worse. Just taking these statues down isn’t enough, and we can’t give our society a collective excuse to say that they’ve checked racism and bigotry off their to-do list.

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