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Hungary: Budapest Government Reduces Funding For Museum Of Communist Terror

  • Roland Eggleston

A controversy has erupted in Hungary over the future of a Budapest museum devoted to the torture and repression practiced by the postwar Communist dictatorship. The Socialist-led government has reduced funding for the museum despite widespread protests. It also questions the focus on Communist atrocities and says the museum should give more space to the atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation. Critics say some members of the government are distressed that the exhibition names many of those who worked for the political police, including the father of a prominent government parliamentarian.

Budapest, 21 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The building in central Budapest where the museum is housed is known in Hungary as the House of Terror. It was first used as a prison and torture center by the Hungarian Nazi organization, the Arrow Cross, in 1944. From 1945 until the Hungarian uprising in 1956, it was the interrogation center of the Hungarian security police, the notorious AVH.

Over three floors, it displays instruments of torture, including electric prods, interrogation cabins, and narrow boxes in which a prisoner was forced to stand for more than two days without being able to move his arms or legs. In a corner of the basement next to the torture cells is a reconstructed execution room with a gallows. A video in the entrance hall shows an elderly man weeping uncontrollably as he talks about the tortures he endured in this building.

The museum was opened by the previous conservative government led by Viktor Orban in February 2001. The present controversy erupted when the new Socialist-led coalition government elected last year decided to reduce the funding. The government is offering only $449,000 in financial support this year, although Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy had previously pledged $674,000.

Critics say the $225,000 shortfall will prevent museum authorities from adding more evidence of the crimes committed in the building by the Arrow Cross and the Hungarian security police from 1944 until 1956. Many Hungarians suspect there may be political motives behind the government's financial cut.

Olga Kovacs, a Budapest nurse whose father was tortured for several weeks in 1953, said she believes some members of parliament are unhappy at the public exposure of the methods used by the Communist secret police. "Of course, everybody in Hungary knows that this was a place of terror, and terrible things happened to prisoners here. But most of us don't know the details of what was done. This exhibition makes the details terribly clear, and some people don't like that. Don't forget that many of the torturers in this place are still alive and living in Hungary. They don't want people to be reminded of what they did," she said.

Some find it surprising that the initiative to cut the museum's budget came not from the Socialist Party, which leads the coalition government and includes many former Communists. Instead, it came from the junior party, the Free Democrats, which was founded by former dissidents in 1989 when Hungarian communism collapsed.

One of the Free Democrats who successfully petitioned parliament to reduce financial support for the museum is Ivan Peto, chairman of the parliamentary Culture Committee. Critics point out that the museum names his father, who is still alive, as a member of the AVH. He is identified as a member of the AVH in a long list of names and photographs in what the exhibition calls the Gallery of the Tormentors.

Tibor Horvath, a 38-year-old chemist, said he opposes the reduction in funding for the museum. "Our children have to know what happened here during the times of fascism and communism," he told a reporter.

Retired schoolteacher Annamaria Kovacs agrees. "Hungarian governments have a history of hiding the facts," she said. "Cutting the funding for the museum will contribute to this."

The museum's director-general Maria Schmidt said she is disappointed at the financial cuts but hopes that, eventually, the government will provide the extra funds.

A government spokesman, Zoltan Gal, said the government supports the museum in principle but believes its scope should be extended to provide what he called a "more objective" perspective of terror in the 20th century by including records of what happened during the Nazi occupation. "In the current exhibition, the emphasis is on the terrors of communism. This is certainly something which Hungarians remember. But we should not forget either the crimes of the Nazis [or] their Hungarian fascist allies," Gal said.

The Hungarian government, led by Admiral Mikolos Horthy, originally collaborated with the Nazis, and Hungarians fought alongside Germans in several battles against the Soviet Union. But Horthy was overthrown in 1944 when he supported moves toward a peace settlement, and the Arrow Cross assumed control under German supervision.

Statements at the entrance to the museum condemn both Nazi and Communist terrorism, but Gal pointed out that the exhibition itself focuses almost exclusively on Communist terror.

Olga Kovacs believes this is how it should be. She said tens of thousands of Hungarians still remember the horrors of the Soviet-sponsored AVH terrorism, which ended in 1956. Fewer have family memories of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross era in 1944. "I remember my father coming home from prison. He did not tell us children what the AVH did to him, but we could see they had smashed him. Somehow the AVH seems more a part of our lives than the Arrow Cross. Perhaps because many of these AVH people are still alive. I do not think that many of the Arrow Cross torturers are still alive. That's why I think the museum is right to focus more on the AVH," she said.

Political commentators in Hungary say the House of Terror is in no danger of closing, despite the reduction in government funding. It attracted thousands of visitors daily for months after its opening, and there are still lines most days.

Schmidt said many of those who come are Hungarians who suffered under the AVH and used the 1956 revolution as a chance to flee their torturers and go to other countries.

A museum guide says: "Every week there is someone who breaks down when they go down to the basement where we have rebuilt the torture cells. We never ask questions, but it's clear what it means to them. They come from all over the world to remember what happened to them."

The exhibition ends by noting that the House of Terror was closed in the aftermath of the 1956 revolution, although Communist repression continued. The torture and interrogation cells were torn down, and the security officials moved out. The building was reconstructed so that no trace remained of its history, and other tenants moved in.

But Schmidt said the continuing flow of visitors -- many of them young people -- shows that the fear it once inspired has not been forgotten. She believes the House of Terror should remain as a memorial and a warning.