Public Space and Resistance

On Budapest’s Living Memorial

For East-Central European countries emerging out of the period of state socialism, it was only after 1989 that the civic sphere and civil society could make themselves felt as constructive elements of democracy. An agent of the development of the democratic order, civil society represents a significant force in opposition to political power, for instance in its capacity to thematize sensitive social questions, form public opinion, assert values, and keep the government in check.

The years since the right-wing turn in Hungary have also demonstrated that the forms of (mass) protest employed against the populist, “illiberal”1 regime—often for lack of a political alternative—have confined themselves to attempting to change not the social system as a whole, but only its particular sub-elements, such as education or healthcare, or led into the dead end of becoming a political party. Through a rhetoric of discrediting opposition and by offering prospects of consensus, the government has pacified the protests of trade unions and other interest groups whose activities were directed towards consensual efforts, i.e., institutional functioning. On several occasions, what partly led to the protesters renouncing their claims was as a reaction to political power’s indifference and refusal to enter into dialogue or take part in debates, which showed that these relations was marked by a repudiation of the justness of protests.

“Living Conversations” of the Living Memorial, Liberty Square, Budapest, 2015 Source: Polyak Attila – origo.hu.
“Living Conversations” at the Living Memorial, Liberty Square, Budapest, 2015 Source: Polyak Attila – origo.hu.

Living Memorial is one of the longest sustained civil demonstrations of the last couple of years in Hungary. In protest at a statue planned for erection on Budapest’s Liberty (Szabadság) Square, which was named in the Hungarian government’s preliminary announcement in December 2013 as the “Monument to the Victims of the German Occupation,” the first stones, personal belongings,2 and documents were placed on Liberty Square in the framework of a flash mob3 on March 24, 2014. The official memorial’s dedication and iconography positioned the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944 in the interpretive framework of victimology extended to all of Hungary, referring to the event as a point in time when the nation lost its national sovereignty.4 According to this interpretation, Hungary is not to blame for the events that occurred following that date, including the most severe period of the Holocaust.5 When the plans became public, several civil organizations started to protest against it, with opposition continuing through the Facebook page Living Memorial (Eleven Emlékmű). Subsequently, this group also took the initiative of establishing the anti-memorial. Starting in April 2014, after the re-election of the right-wing government, the erection of the memorial was effectuated. From that time on, protesters also resorted to physical resistance in the form of repeatedly dismantling the crowd control barriers around the sculptural group, as well as organizing regular debate forums on the spot.6 Little by little, a community took shape, which maintained the “living dialogues,”7 which has evolved into a forum for the discussion of a variety of social issues beyond the topic of the Holocaust and social responsibility.8 During the last two and a half years, the organizational and infrastructural conditions of the Living Memorial initiative have improved (including a podium, chairs, and an amplifier), which also made it possible to stage continuous discussions even at venues outside Liberty Square.9

Liberty Square, with the Monument to the Victims of the German Occupation in the foreground and the Soviet War Memorial in the Background. The former Hungarian Television Headquarters is located on the left hand side and building of the US Embassy on the right. Source: Polyak Attila – origo.hu.
Liberty Square, with the Monument to the Victims of the German Occupation in the foreground and the Soviet War Memorial in the Background. The former Hungarian Television Headquarters is located on the left hand side and the building of the US Embassy on the upper right. Source: Polyak Attila – origo.hu.

There is scarcely any other public space besides Liberty Square in Hungary today that is so overwhelmingly charged with meaning due to the preserved traces of historic traumas and conflicts to be found there. In the shadow of Kossuth Square,10 which hosts the Hungarian Parliament (a square that has served the representational purposes of all kinds of political power, as well as providing a venue for protest movements and opposition events), Liberty Square began its architectural and urban history in the form as we know it today with the demolition of the building of Újépület (Neugebäude), which represented the one-time imperial power and also functioned as a prison.11 From 1899 onwards, the square and the neighboring streets were named after those who participated in, and were executed during the aftermath of, the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution and war of independence. Following the Treaty of Trianon that formally ended World War I, a sculptural group referring to the former Hungarian regions ceded to the neighboring countries was erected in 1921, to be followed by further revisionist statues to “populate” the square. It is important to note that on May 1, 1945, alongside two other memorials to Hungary’s liberation in 1945, a memorial to the Soviet heroes were inaugurated, which also served funerary purposes, since a war grave of Soviet soldiers, killed during Budapest’s siege, was placed underneath the memorial. The memorial saw only minor damage during the 1956 revolution. The first change in the situation of the fallen Soviet heroes’ memorial occurred in the 2000s, when it was temporally pulled down while an underground garage was built there. The bodies of the Soviet soldiers resting in the tomb were exhumed and were re-buried in the Rákoskeresztúr cemetery. With this act, the memorial lost its funerary function. For this reason, several legal attempts were made to relocate the statue, which was also defaced from time to time. The memorial came into the limelight once again in 2006, during the siege of the former Hungarian Television Headquarters also located on the Square.12 In order to prevent further attempts at defacing the memorial, it was cordoned off from 2006 to 2014, since then it can again be approached again freely, without having incited any acts of defacement.

Besides memorials and statues that meant to convey social memory, the square and the buildings surrounding it may turn out to be unwitting memorials of an era as well. Just think of the fortress-like building of the US Embassy situated on Liberty Square, which used to represent the enemy power in the Cold-War era’s imagination, and which also provided protection and shelter for Cardinal József Mindszenty for nearly fifteen years following the 1956 Revolution against the occupant Soviet power.

The Monument to the Victims of the German Occupation itself is not a one-off monument. In 2011, the Hungarian National Assembly decided to renew—in both the physical and the symbolic sense of the word—Kossuth Square around the Parliament building, which entailed the construction of a visitors’ center and an underground garage, as well as the aboveground reconstruction of the square. In line with the historical self-definition declared in the new constitution that entered into force in 2012, according to which Hungary lost its autonomy on the day of the German occupation (March 19, 1944) to only regain its sovereignty on the day of the first free elections on May 2, 1990,13 this resolution also announced the restitution of the square to its state “before 1944, in artistic terms.”14 The implication is that by restoring the statues and memorials that had once been situated on the square (the majority of the surviving ones were later removed), the government also effectuated the historical-political-aesthetic restoration of the mid-war authoritarian regime, in the spirit of the historical continuity and new beginning defined in the constitution. The ahistorical symbolism of Kossuth Square—the restoration of a past era and the simultaneous proclamation of a new epoch—is worth examining in its interaction with the monument to the German occupation, which is meant to refer to the deprivation of the country of its sovereignty.

Living Memorial as a public installation and as a civil group has been active for two and a half years, supplemented with Szabadságszínpad (Liberty Stage) just a few meters  away.15 As opposed to the historicizing, figurative aesthetics of the occupation memorial, Living Memorial has turned to a radically different practice of erecting memorials, following the memory-historical and aesthetic turn linked to the representation of the Holocaust and historic traumas.16 Contrary to the characteristically figurative and closed memorials striving to present heroes or actual victims, this practice has brought about open (anti)memorials that are self-reflective and that incite a sense of personal engagement and participation. Stones, objects, stories, and personal items belonging to victims are made to both literally and metaphorically confront the image of history as is embodied by the Monument to the Victims of the German Occupation. This permanent tension endows the Living Memorial with energy, as well as providing the aesthetic, moral, and political basis of its opposition. The structure and the objects of this memorial are fragile; from time to time, they are ravaged and the texts are torn down, which the Living Memorial community keeps reinstating and repairing. Such a hidden dialogue, such a symbolic fight, is part of the field of forces between the two memorials. Rather than enforcing restrictive measures against the Living Memorial, political power patiently tolerates it and even protects it; and while ensuring freedom of assembly, refuses to enter into a dialogue with it.

Stones and objects as part of the ongoing anti-monument of the Living Memorial, 2016. Photo by Lóránt Bódi
Stones and objects as part of the ongoing anti-monument of the Living Memorial, 2016. Photo by Lóránt Bódi

Living Memorial utilizes several forms of civil opposition. For us, just as in the case of the political demonstrations of recent years (for example, the student movements in in Hungary), a significant source of inspiration was the means and methods that the Occupy movement has publicized (debate forums, constant presence, the communications semiology of direct democracy, its notification-chain-like functioning, and the active usage of social media). The most significant element of the protest, i.e., the occupation of the square, has been consigned to a group of personal objects and stones commemorating the dead, the removal of which would imply an act of profanation. These objects, rather than their physical presence, ensure the continuity of the Living Memorial, in addition to a number of discussions organized every week on the spot and outside Liberty Square.

As can be seen from the above, Living Memorial was not only born in opposition to something, but has turned out to be a founding event for a group and a community. A significant element of its “methodology” is the symbolic occupation of space, and as such, it was able to take sides with causes that were rendered visible in public places, that “have gained spatial qualities.” Through its permanent presence during the last couple of years, Living Memorial has stood up against a seriously mistaken governmental memory politics, as well as been able to expand the sphere of social issues and the circle of those taking an interest in them, by means of which it might, even, in the long run, also extend its influence to a broader circle of society.

About the author

Lóránt Bódi is a social scientist, PhD candidate at Atelier – Department of European Social Sciences and Historiography (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest). He has studied at the Eötvös Loránd University and visited ZZF (Potsdam) and EHESS (Paris) as a researcher. He mainly focuses on politics of memory and the formation of different historical narratives under the postwar period in Hungary and during the Kádár era (1956–1989).

 

A contribution to issue #2: Inside the Mozosfera edited by Nikolett Erőss and Eszter Szakács

Notes

  1. On July 26, 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán notably said during a speech in Baile Tusnad, Romania that he wants to build an “illiberal state,” referencing Russia and Turkey as examples. See also Sylvie Kauffmann, “Europe’s Illiberal Democracies,” New York Times, March 9, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/10/opinion/europes-illiberal-democracies.html?_r=0
  2. As the Facebook page of Living Memorial puts it: “symbolic objects of personal memory,” https://www.facebook.com/ElevenEmlekmu/
  3. The flash mob was announced by civil activists and contemporary artists, namely: Péter Béndek, Mária Heller, György Jovánovics, Balázs Kicsiny, Szabolcs KissPál, András Lukács, Csaba Nemes, and András Rényi.
  4. The monument depicts before a backdrop of a tympanum and a white limestone colonnade, the bronze figure of Archangel Gabriel who stands with his arms wide open, evoking the gesture of crucifixion, and holds an orb in his right hand, while an eagle representing Nazi Germany pounces on him from above. Formally, the heroic composition—the work of sculptor Péter Párkányi Raab—is rather anachronistic.
  5. Year 2014, as a commemorative year of the 70th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, was given accentuated attention by the government. Related to the commemorative year, several memorials were inaugurated, as well as programs, conferences, and exhibitions organized throughout Hungary. It is exactly in this light that the government’s intent to erect the Occupation Monument was seen as contradictory.
  6. The monument was given over to the public on July 20, 2014, without an official inauguration event.
  7. These discussions are open for anyone.
  8. The discussions of the Living Memorial are centered on a given topic, with the involvement of an expert on the given subject or a witness of a given era and a moderator. These conversations are heterogeneous in thematic terms: with special emphasis on topical questions, they are held on cultural policy, the functioning of the institutions of democracy, and the possibilities of political resistance. Some concrete examples include the museum quarter, the situation of the Roma minority in Hungary, or the “migration crisis.” http://jeumag.com/reactions/budapest-living-memorial
  9. The Living Memorial group has also organized discussions and protests at other venues. From among these, mention must be made of a successful protest against the erection of a statue to Bálint Hóman (1885–1951), historian, minister of religious affairs and education, a supporter of the anti-Jewish legislation, as well as the ongoing discussions held in collaboration with the “Ligetvédők” (Park Protectors) protesting against the revamping of Budapest’s public park Városliget, in conjunction with the constructions of the planned Museum Quarter.
  10. From 1853, the square was named Stadt Schopper Platz, to be renamed in 1896 to Országház (Parliament), in 1918 to Köztársaság (Republic), and it was only named Kossuth Square in 1928. András Gerő, Térerő, A Kossuth tér története (Field Strength. The History of Kossuth Square), (Budapest: Új Mandátum Kiadó, 2008), 11.
  11. It was in the Neugebäude that Count Lajos Batthyány, the first prime minister of Hungary was executed on October 6, 1849.
  12. In May 2006, at a confidential meeting of the Hungarian Socialist Party’s parliamentary group in the town of Balatonőszöd, then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány delivered a speech in which he spoke plainly of the political communication and technologies of power, related to his party’s previous parliamentary term, the adoption of which contributed to their electoral victory. An audio recording of his speech was leaked to the public a few months later, on September 17. During protests against the Prime Minister and his government, a group of protesters marched to the Hungarian Television’s headquarters on Liberty Square, and breaking through the police lines, pushed their way into the TV building, demanding to announce a petition on air. The release of the “Őszöd speech” led to a political crisis and was charged with a symbolic content pointing beyond itself. From this point on, the government and the political left lost its legitimacy in a self-revelatory manner for the right-wing opposition parties and their electors, and in addition, it became a political means, a significant anti-argument within the opposition’s self-definition.
  13. In other words, legal continuity is linked to the status prior to March 19, 1944.
  14. András Gerő, “Retrotér – A Kossuth tér átrendezéséről,” (Retro-space – On the Rearrangement of Kossuth Square), Magyar Narancs 43 (2011).
  15. The Liberty Stage civil group also grew out of protests against the German occupation monument. The group is one of the co-initiators and organizers of the Living Memorial. Around Liberty Stage, with their events staged in the vicinity of the Living Memorial, regular discussions are organized, and they also take part in protests and other forms of activism.
  16. See James E. Young, The Texture of Memory,  (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993), Aleida Assmann, Lange Schatten der Vergangenheit, (München: C.H. Beck, 2006).

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