A Tale of Two Cities: Budapest

Budapest is a city of two halves; Buda and Pest. However, the city also has a dual history. As a German ally during the Second World War, Hungary was essentially a fascist regime, while post-war it became a communist state. Evidence of both extremes can be found in the city’s memorials, which invariably present Hungary as both victim of and victor over Nazi and Soviet influences.

The first memorial I visited in Budapest was Memento Park, on the outskirts of the city. I’d heard about the park, mostly in reference to Stalin’s boots which are regarded as the most iconic piece there (the information booklet produced for the park even has ‘Stalin’s Boots’ as its title). It’s not hard to see why, their sheer scale gives an indication of the impact of the soviet regime and that they are presented in their isolation gives the impression that Hungary’s October Revolution was truly monumental.  They themselves are not the original component of Stalin’s fallen statue, rather a photograph of its destruction provided the inspiration for the production of the boots as a literal standing reminder of the collapse of communist rule. The boots, disembodied as they are, are monument to the fall of a once mighty regime. They are a statue not just without a head, or leader (Stalin), but without a body (the people). The boots represent the major shift in Hungary’s history.

The rest of the park is akin to a soviet graveyard, with iterations of soviet leaders such as Lenin and soviet soldiers and workers. There is little information on each piece, I’d recommend buying the guidebook if you want a bit of context. Most of the pieces will be familiar to anyone who has studied the Russian Revolution; the entrance to the park is flanked by Marx and Engels and there is a literal bunker full of Lenin busts. The statues would feel like trophies were they not hidden away, outside of the city and in some cases underground, in their own concrete tomb. Memento Park is the place where these soviet relics have essentially been laid to rest, and with it, in some sense, Hungary’s communist past.

Places like Memento Park are difficult to get ‘right’, the difficulty will always be striking a balance between forgetting the past and honoring it. The location of the park, outside of the city could be seen to be in a sense hiding this aspect of Hungary’s history. The Hungarian government has certainly been criticised for this in other arenas. Liberty Square, in the heart of the city, has been subject to protest and demonstration by those who view the monument as a reluctance to accept responsibility for Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. The statue itself presents an angel (Hungary) about to fall prey to an eagle (Germany). The main objection to such a representation is the impression that Hungary was the innocent victim of the Nazi regime. Personal effects of Jews killed in Hungary during the Second World War line the perimeter of the memorial, detailing individual stories and drawing tourists’ attention to objections to the statue’s message.


Memorial for the Victims of the German Occupation, Liberty Square 


Personal effects of murdered Hungarian Jews and their stories, left by relatives at the site of the Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation in Liberty Square. 

The ahistorical interpretation of Hungary’s role presented in Liberty Square stands in contrast to the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a memorial to the people murdered by the Arrow Cross, a fascist party in power from 1944-45. The memorial includes sixty pairs of iron shoes strewn along the river bank representing the victims of the Arrow Cross, who were lined up along the river, instructed to remove their shoes, and shot. While the plaque accompanying the memorial states it is simply ‘to the memory of the victims’, many of those murdered were Jews. In opposition to the memorial in Liberty Square, Shoes on the Danube acknowledges Hungary’s role in the deaths of many of its citizens, but stops short of relating this to the Holocaust more broadly, despite the fact that the Arrow Cross deported tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps.

Shoes on the Danube, sixty pairs of iron shoes that stand as a memorial to those murdered along the banks of the Danube by the Arrow Cross. 

Budapest’s memorials reflect Hungary’s uneasiness with its own history. Protesters have rightly higlighted the lack of recognition for Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. Unlike Germany, there is a sense that Hungary is reluctant to accept any responsibility for the atrocities of the Second World War, preferring to construct a narrative of Hungary as the victim of Nazi or Soviet aggression. I thought that the Nazi and Soviet memorials would feel at odds with one another, two extremes a the opposite end of a spectrum, but in reality, they are presented in much the same way. They are used to present Hungary as an oppressed nation who was able to overcome its oppressors. I’m not sure any memorials can truly present a well-rounded, complete story, but at their worst, these statues are a lie. They represent an attempt to obscure history. However, the stones and suitcases that lie in Liberty Square are evidence that the public do not so easily forget; that they will not allow history to be rewritten.

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