Tragedy, Memory, History

James Grossman, October 2012

Photo by Ann BillingsleyOn the east bank of the Danube, a few hundred yards south of the grand halls of the Hungarian Parliament, lies a memorial that should attract the attention of any historian interested in memory, tragedy, and sheer inhumanity. Sixty pairs of shoes, cast in iron, affixed to the concrete pathway. Walking along, slowly, I counted only 115 shoes, not all in pairs. Perhaps I miscounted, though in general, the information I subsequently pieced together on the web was anything but definitive.

But that ambiguity befits this monument. An evocative work of art that ought to attract more attention from tourists, the shoes are part of a contested history. They commemorate the thousands of Hungarian Jews murdered by other Hungarians in 1944–45—many of them shot at the riverbank, thus saving the trouble of burial as the bodies fell into the river. The shoes? Removed because they were valuable—more valuable than the lives of the victims.

That's the crucial word: victims. The individuals who shot these innocent men and women on the river's edge are invisible. Both "history" and "memory" engage more comfortably with victims than with perpetrators. It's easy to identify victims, to sympathize, and to condemn their victimization. Here, Budapest, a "lovely city with a grim history" (as one of my more knowledgeable colleagues puts it), offers a provocative laboratory. The city's strategic location and the political geography of European conflicts, has, for a millennium or more, repeatedly placed its people and its landscape amidst the horrors and cruelties of war and occupation. It is not a history I know well. I could enter into it only as a curious tourist.

My introduction to local memory began with Budapest's Grand Synagogue, and its adjoining Holocaust Memorial and museum. The guide in the museum offered a tour that was purposeful, but hardly polemical. That is, until we reached the permanent exhibition's final section, which dealt with the Holocaust. Here, still calm and empirical, but with an increasingly discernible passion, she made her priorities clear: visitors must know that the Holocaust in Budapest could not have happened without the active cooperation of the local population. The shoes, which she recommended we visit, pointed not to Nazi terror, but to the work of the Arrow Cross (Nyilaskeresztes Párt), Hungary's homegrown anti-Semites. Popular historical literature generally refers to the Arrow Cross as Fascists. That they were. But what in the context of those empty shoes is especially significant is that these Hungarians were anti-Semitic terrorists, and that their anti-Semitism resonated deeply in Hungarian culture—as it did elsewhere in Europe. Along with the stories of heroic Hungarians who protected Jews in various ways, legal and otherwise, this was the memory she wanted to plant in the minds of visitors. Historical narrative yes; but to her, something we needed to remember.

Next, the "House of Terror," a museum reconstructed from the headquarters of first the Arrow Cross, and then the Hungarian State Security apparatus during the Soviet era. The exhibitions offer a narrative of state terrorism against the people of Hungary and the building itself stands as a memorial to its victims, hundreds of whose photographs line the exterior walls. We encounter first a dynamic map in a dark room, dramatically illustrating the dismemberment of the historical Hungary, beginning with the 1920 Trianon Treaty depriving the nation of "two-thirds of its territory." Walking through the galleries we pass rapidly through the fascist period, which emphasizes the decisive role of the Nazis and portrays the Arrow Cross more as collaborators than initiators. The museum's brochure notes that during the short period of Arrow Cross rule, "innocent Jews were shot and plunged into the icy Danube," but does not direct visitors to the riverbank memorial. The bulk of the exhibition focuses on the communist regime, with an emphasis on external forces, popular suffering, and unceasing political repression. Its dramatic crescendo is an eerily narrated elevator descent into the "reconstructed prison cells" used by a secret police taking its orders from the Kremlin—whose presence is tangibly affirmed by the "Room of the Soviet Advisors."

None of this is surprising, and a handful of scholars and journalists have pointed to interpretive problems arising from the narrowly nationalist historical frame. With some of the criticism coming from defenders of the Communist regime, museum Director-General Mária Schmidt has had little difficulty dismissing critics as politically motivated. She then lumps the more scholarly criticism into that box as well, asking "Is there anything in history that is not related to politics"?

One might respond by differentiating between history that is "related" to politics and history that is driven by politics. In this case, I'm interested in the implications of a politics of nationhood that relies on victimization as its central theme. To be Hungarian is to share a memory of victimization.

Here we encounter, as we so often do, an aspect of the vexed relationship between history and memory. Director Schmidt's job, arguably, is less "history" than memory. Her role, like the mission of the tour guide at the Jewish Museum, is to shape our memories. Her museum is not in the business of asking questions, assembling evidence, generating narrative and analysis based on that evidence, and then looking for new questions based on that analysis. The goal is to weave together individual memories (in the form of superb oral histories) with collective memory in order to form a national narrative. Indeed, people find it easier to remember and understand their own struggles, their own victimization, than those of others.

This particular use of memory comes at a cost. In translating an increasingly distant past into a vivid present, the House of Terror reinvents national identity with victimization at its core. To Budapest's Jews, victims of Hungarian nationalist anti-Semitism, the tragic paradox is painfully obvious.

The House of Terror is vivid for another reason. The line of photographs of victims on the outside wall is recalled by a final twist: a corridor of Hungarians who had sufficient autonomy and decision-making power to reasonably be accorded responsibility for what happened in this place.

It was impossible not to wonder whether a comparable historical "perp walk" would be appropriate in the United States. Comparisons are hard to draw across time and place; analogues even harder. But I begin to think about exhibitions that document various aspects of chattel slavery in the western hemisphere: chains, shackles, advertisements, photographs of lashed backs. For a later period, postcards that depict crowds attending a lynching as if it were a festival. The crowds, however, are anonymous. The labels properly explain the implications of the ritual and communal nature of lynching; but we don't know who stood in the crowd. We don't know who affixed the rope or lit the match. After walking along the corridor of photographs of men who ordered the torture of Hungarian political prisoners, men who operated a bureaucracy that used terror to inhibit dissent, I could not help but muse upon the difficult challenge of attaching a subject to the act of victimization; is it easier to document the process and sympathize with the victim? Not always. We've seen enough photographs of Sheriff Clark with his hoses and dogs to understand the impact of naming and embodying the perpetrators of officially sanctioned terror. But the upholders of the slave regimes are more respectable, and their images have generally appeared in contexts separate from exhibitions of the horrors over which they presided. Should their portraits hang in the same galleries as the artifacts of enslavement?

James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.