Round About Midnight

Picture 6

Workers complete the German Occupation Memorial early on the morning of July 20 (source: atlatszo.hu).

July 20, 2014—about an hour after midnight: a convoy of trucks, police vans and a crane pulls up to the incomplete German Occupation Memorial on Szabadság [Freedom] Square in central Budapest (see What Is Truth?). 

Workers emerge from the trucks and erect security fence around the perimeter of the memorial and at all points of access to the square as approximately 100 police officers stand guard (source A and B in Hungarian). 

 A few late-night stragglers observe the spectacle from a distance. A couple of them take video on their mobile phones.

The crane lifts the missing statue elements—a German Imperial Eagle (Reichsadler) representing Hitler’s Third Reich descending upon an Archangel Michael representing Horthy’s Hungary—into place, thus completing the structure that has been standing unfinished for weeks.   

The next morning the opposition media reports the news in the greatest detail possible, most of them relying on a video published on the website atlatszo.hu

The Hungarian News Agency MTI that serves as the source of news for all Hungary’s state-run television and radio stations makes no mention of the overnight completion of the memorial, reporting only the protest of various opposition parties beginning later in the morning. 

A group of about 200 demonstrators gathers spontaneously at the newly completed memorial to the victims of Nazi Germany’s occupation of fellow Axis power Hungary in the final year of the Second World War, pelting the statue of Archangel Michael with eggs. The large contingent of police protecting the memorial does not intervene, though initiates petty-offense procedures against the egg throwers (source in Hungarian).

Background

U.S. historian Randolph Braham: returned his Hungarian state award in protest.

U.S. historian Randolph Braham: returned his Hungarian state award in protest.

The Prime Minister’s Office decided in January 2014 to build the memorial in an expedited procedure by the 70th anniversary of the 1944 German invasion of Hungary on March 19. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Prime Ministry chief János Lázár presumably intended the memorial to serve as a means of arousing pro-Fidesz patriotic fervor ahead the National Assembly election in April. 

The published design for the statue showed a predatory Imperial Eagle swooping down, talons extended, upon a helpless Archangel Michael, arms spread in resignation, evoking harsh criticism from the liberal-left opposition and Jewish organizations because it implied that Germany, not Hungary, was responsible for the post-invasion deportation of around 430,000 Jewish Hungarians to concentration camps in the Third Reich, almost all of them to Auschwitz. 

The main Jewish Hungarian organization MAZSIHISZ announced in early February that it would not participate in any official state commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the deportations, partially as a result of the government’s decision to build the memorial (source in Hungarian). Furthermore, the World Jewish Congress and 30 Jewish members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives asked the Orbán government to reconsider the planned memorial (source A and B in Hungarian).  

U.S. historian and 1943–1944 Hungarian Labor Battalion conscript Randolph Braham, one of the leading world specialists on the Hungarian Holocaust, returned the state Order of Merit award the Orbán government presented to him in 2011 to protest the German Occupation Memorial, stating that “I regard this to be a cowardly attempt to divert attention from the role the Horthy régime played in the annihilation of Jews and to obfuscate the Holocaust with the ‘suffering’ that Hungarians incurred as a result of the German occupation, whereas the historical facts prove that rather than resistance, the latter was received with general applause” (source A and B in Hungarian).  

Taking Horthy for a ride.

Taking Horthy for a ride.

Prime Minister Orbán responded to international criticism of the proposed German Occupation Memorial during his February 17, 2014 “Appraisal of the Year” (évértékelő) address: “I am still astonished, though I didn’t undertake this profession just yesterday, how they get the nerve to tell us, even expect us, to think, how we should commemorate, what goals we should set, what we should do and what we should not do” (source in Hungarian).

However, on February 19 the opposition daily Népszabadság reported, citing unnamed sources, that the government had decided to postpone construction of the German Occupation Memorial until after the April 6 National Assembly elections for two reasons: because unveiling the statue before the elections would be “divisive”; and—perhaps more importantly—because preparation of the various elements of the memorial was behind schedule (source in Hungarian). 

Although the government never officially announced the postponement, on February 20 the Prime Minister’s Office provided the media with a letter that Prime Minister Orbán had written to MAZSIHISZ stating that due to the election campaign “the time is hardly suitable for us to calmly and compassionately express our opinions to one another” and that they “continue their dialogue after the [post-election] Easter holidays that bring renewal to us all” (source in Hungarian).

Construction Begins 

German Occupation Memorial under construction (Orange Files photo).

German Occupation Memorial under construction (photo: Orange Files).

Construction of the German Occupation Memorial began unannounced on April 8, two days after Fidesz won a convincing victory in Hungary’s 2014 National Assembly elections. About 300 protestors appeared at the location of the memorial immediately after the media reported that construction had begun, staging a spontaneous demonstration during which they pulled down a security fence that workers had built around the building site (source A and B in Hungarian).

Within days, the area in front of the German Occupation Memorial site was full of mourning stones (which Jews traditionally place at grave sites instead of flowers), records and mementos from the Holocaust, portraits and personal belongings of victims and signs and photographs showing scenes from the deportations and concentration camps as well as evidence of Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany (the iconic image of Horthy and Hitler enjoying a mirthful moment while riding together in the backseat of an open automobile in 1938 was especially popular). 

Orange Files visited the location of the memorial on several occasions over the next three months: each time two or three dozen people, many of them foreigners, stood examining the growing protest shrine and police-protected columns rising above the covered security fence surrounding the work site (see Orange Files photo gallery).

Orbán’s Dilemma 

Police protecting the newly completed memorial (Orange Files photo).

Police protecting the newly completed memorial    (photo: Orange Files).

It was one of the few times that Prime Minister Orbán, the consummate political tactician, had painted himself into a corner: he had vastly underestimated the vehemence of opposition to the German Occupation Memorial and the time it would take to build the structure, thereby nullifying its original purpose of generating nationalist political support in the run-up to the spring elections; and he had vastly overestimated the ability of average Hungarians to understand the intended symbolic message of the memorial portraying Hungary as victim rather than perpetrator during the Second World War, particularly with regard to the Holocaust. In short, it quickly became evident that the German Occupation Memorial entailed many potential political costs and no potential political benefits.  

The prime minister ostensibly timed the overnight completion of the memorial on July 20 to attract as little attention as possible: not only was the city of Budapest remarkably deserted on that date, many of its residents either on vacation or at their summer homes along Lake Balaton for the weekend; but the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine and the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip were consuming the interest of both the residents of Budapest and people throughout Europe and North America (source in Hungarian). 

The Orbán government reportedly intended to hold an unveiling ceremony on July 21, though cancelled the event at the after the scheduled speaker, Prime Minister’s Office State Secretary László L. Simon, backed out at the last moment (source in Hungarian). Prime Ministry chief János Lázár announced on this date that there would be no official unveiling ceremony (source in Hungarian).  

Prime Minister Orbán issued a three-paragraph statement later the same day in which he portrayed construction of the memorial as the government’s duty (first paragraph, source in Hungarian): 

Yesterday the Hungarian government fulfilled its obligation to the constitutional order, to past victims and to Hungarians living today. We put the work of public art into place, one that is designed to express the pain and affliction that the Hungarian nation felt and suffered as a result of the loss of its freedom. 

Opposition Mecca?

The newly built German Occupation Memorial has been the site of all-day peaceful protest activity and public discussion over the five days since its completion, much of it organized by the Facebook group Living Memorial (Eleven Emlékmű). Most of those present at the memorial appear to be either Budapest Jews or foreign tourists. However, the German Occupation Memorial could quickly become a rallying point for the Hungary’s growing democratic opposition, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.  

An early indication: on July 25, a protestor suspended a banner reading “We Mourn Democracy” from one of the arms of the statue of Archangel Michael. More than a day later, police guarding the memorial had still not taken it down. 

IMG_2906

We Mourn Democracy (photo: Orange Files).

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