One of my favorite locations in Budapest is the top of Gellert Hill, high above the city, in the Buda hills west of the Danube River. (In 1873, the separate cities of Buda, above the Danube’s west bank, Pest, on the plain on the river’s east bank, and Obuda were unified as Budapest.) The superb view from this vantage point encompasses all of Budapest, from the great Mathias Church and Royal Palace below on the west bank, the many beautiful bridges crossing the river, and the austere neo-gothic Parliament building at the edge of the Danube’s east bank. The view becomes more astounding if I close my eyes and imagine the 60-year-old pictures of a Budapest in rubble at World War II’s end. Open my eyes, and the extent of the reconstruction is amazing.
On the hill’s summit, near the Citadella, the old 19th century Hapsburg fortress, stands the enormous “Liberty Statue” or “Independence Monument”. Erected on a large base in 1947, the statue celebrated the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary from the Nazis. When I first went to Budapest, capital of communist Hungary, in ‘88, the statue was “guarded” by smaller statues of Soviet soldiers, the base listed names of Soviet (not Hungarian) heroes, and sported a large red star. I returned to Budapest in 2002, 10 years after the soldiers, heroes’ names, and the red star were removed. The statue now commemorates, in Hungarian, the heroes who have fallen in defense of Hungary’s freedom. The view now of this free city, in this free country, certainly does seem more spectacular than it was in the past.
Truly, Budapest is now one of the premier cities, perhaps the premier city, within the former Communist bloc. I have enjoyed my visits to other former communist cities, for example, Prague, Warsaw, and Bucharest. Budapest, though, if not unique, is exceptional. Like the other cities I’ve visited, Budapest’s suffering during World War II, and during the almost 50 years of communist rule, was acute. Unlike those other cities, Budapest was twice destroyed during WWII and during the ‘56 anti-communist, Hungarian Revolution.
Throughout its history, Budapest has taken the proverbial back seat to other European cities, both east and west. During the 19th century, when Budapest was one of the capitols of the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy, it was overshadowed by the splendor of the Imperial capitol, Vienna. During the Cold War, the US and NATO were prepared to go to war to protect West Berlin; but they refused to intervene in ‘56 when Hungary was invaded and Budapest ravaged by Soviet tanks. Now, in post Cold War Europe, Prague is the trendy traveler’s destination. For example, my non-scientific sample of the travel sections at local branches of a chain bookstore revealed that Prague guidebooks outnumbered those for Budapest by two to one. The 2003 Fodor guide to Prague and Budapest (Fodor’s Travel Publications), gives Prague top billing, including the showcase cover with a beautiful, panoramic picture of Prague.
I, too, am guilty of pro-Prague prejudice. I visited Budapest twice, yet often told friends how much I really, almost desperately, wanted to go to Prague. Andrew Phillips’ novel Prague (Random House, 2002) catches this mood quite well. Though titled “Prague”, the story’s location is actually Budapest. The protagonists are young American expatriates, originally attracted to the cheap living, now trapped by their teaching or government jobs, and Hungarians who live in the, to them, “Budapest backwaters”. They all yearn to go to Prague. A Budapest friend wrote to me that she had read the novel, and was somewhat perplexed. One title, another city; “Why is this,” she asked, “Do you understand this?” Her question was more rueful than literal. It bespoke the resigned acceptance of one who knows her home is perpetually the “other” cit y.
But being trendy has its drawbacks. So far, in the post-communist era, Budapest benefits from avoiding the huge flood of tourists and young backpackers searching for hip places to visit. I admit I’m being a bit selfish, here. Undoubtedly, Hungarians in Budapest, as in all of Hungary, want more visitors. All across eastern Europe, tourism is crucial to reviving national economies. Residents and merchants in Budapest want to grumble about tourists, but they’re happy to count the cash that all those foreigners bring with them.
When I finally did get to Prague in June of ‘02, I initially enjoyed the throngs of tourists and Praguers gathered each evening on the beautiful, medieval Charles Bridge that spans the meandering Vlatava River. The stunning views of the spires and castles spread out on each side of the river under a full June moon, were all that I desired of Prague stood before me. But, after a few nights, the crowds grew a bit tiresome, and I sought out some of the city’s quieter precincts. I began to relish the Budapest memories from both my visits, such as the pleasing afternoon rambles along attractive tree-lined boulevards near the Art Museum. I remembered quiet nighttime strolls along the Danube by the cheerily lit Chain Bridge, where white lights were strung all along the cables and archways. It was hard to believe that 60 years ago, in World War II’s aftermath, that very bridge lay in ruins; the Danube rushing fitfully over its submerged, craggy remains.
Thinking back on my two Budapest visits, in ‘88 and ‘02, within the context of the city’s tumultuous, past 60 years, I am convinced that Budapest need not cede its pride of place to any other city in the former communist block, or to any city in the rapidly expanding European Union. Like Berlin and Warsaw, but unlike Prague and Vienna, which suffered much damage but not complete destruction, Budapest was shattered and reduced to rubble during the fierce battles that raged across Europe from ‘44-‘45 at World War II’s end. But, only 11 years later, in October ‘56, the newly rebuilt, communist-controlled Budapest was attacked when the Soviet Union intervened and crushed Hungary’s attempt to revolt and escape from the Soviet orbit. Much of the central city was again demolished and thousands died as Soviet tanks wreaked havoc, subdued the revolt, and restored communist hegemony.
In the wake of Stalin’s death in ‘53, other Soviet satellite nations rose up against the Soviet Union, notably East Germany and Poland. But the Hungarian revolt was the most sustained attempt to defy the Soviets. And it was the most harshly put down. The Hungarians were, in a sense, 33 years too early in their revolutionary thoughts and actions. There are many factors, and other Soviet satellite nations, to credit for the ‘89 revolutions that ended communist control of east Europe. But between the ‘56 and ‘89 revolutions, the Hungarians, especially the cosmopolitan Budapest residents (and leaders alike) gradually moved away from Soviet political and economic domination. During my ‘88 visit I was amazed at how open this “closed” society was. A wide array of foreign news sources were available, and people had no qualms about talking with an American, or even openly criticizing the communist regime.
Off course, in order to reach that “open” Budapest of ‘88, one had to cross a heavily guarded border that was strung with barbed wire, seeded with mines, and watched over by armed guards in high towers. In ‘89, Hungarians were the first to dismantle those border “protections” and poke a huge hole in the iron curtain. This was the beginning of the end of east European communism. Again, Hungary did not, by itself, cause the ‘89 revolutions. Besides dissident activities in other east European nations, the bold decision of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not to use force to halt the incipient revolts was crucial. But the pictures of Hungarian border guards rolling up coils of barbed wire that were flashed across Europe and around the world clearly galvanized anti-communist resistance elsewhere, and sped the revolution forward.
For 40 years, Hungary was in the vanguard of the movement towards democracy and capitalism in the Soviet satellite nations. Now, along with the Czech Republic and Poland, Hungary enters into NATO and the European Union. And Budapest is at the forefront of the new Europe, friendly, and not yet too crowded. The capitol of the formerly fierce Magyar People, who rampaged through Europe from the 9th to the 10th century C.E., is open and hospitable. After a tumultuous millennium, Hungarians recognize the benefits of moderation.
In the post 9/11 world, and in its view of the ongoing Iraq War, Hungary is less critical of the United States than the Czechs, but less obliging to America than the Romanians. These three nations, which strongly pushed for NATO membership, must now balance the demands of an American led NATO with their citizen’s concerns about US domination. Before the US war with Iraq began in March ‘03, Budapest did not stage the massive anti-war demonstrations that Prague did. Also, Hungary, like Romania, sent a military contingent to Iraq. Unlike the Romanians, Hungarians are now having second thoughts. The Budapest Sun online reported on 20 March that 77% of Hungarians now believe that, especially in the wake of the Abu Gharib prison scandals, Hungary’s contingent of 290 troops in Iraq should come home.
In Budapest, a vibrant cultural life matches the capital’s varied political life. I found this to be true in ‘88. And it seems that the arts, and especially important to me, classical music, are even more evident in free Budapest. Though not an expert, I enjoy opera, and Budapest’s Hungarian State Opera is superb. The opera productions are the equal of any that I have seen elsewhere in Europe. As the 2000 Cadogan guide to Prague and Budapest puts it (Prague is, per usual, listed first; but, the cover pictures Budapest’s Mathias Church and Parliament building, as well as Prague’s St. Vitus’ Cathedral): “The classical scene in Budapest is booming, and audiences are well known for their enthusiasm.” (p. 323) But, this is not surprising in the city that was home to Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, two of the greatest modern composers.
The film scene is also noteworthy. Under communism filmmakers had a freedom to produce films that other artists throughout East Europe did not. In ‘88 I saw Peter Basco’s ‘69 film The Witness, a brilliant, and at times hilarious comedy that spoofs the communist regime. Istvan Szabo’s films are truly world-class cinema. I particularly enjoyed Meeting Venus (1991). Some of his films are difficult to find in the US, but I invite you to sample Sunshine (1999) available on VHS in America. It stars Ralph Fiennes, and Hungarian actors less well know to us, in an epic about a century of Hungarian history, with a special focus on Budapest’s Jewish community.
Budapest, and all of Hungary, has been building towards a capitalist economy since the ‘56 revolution. Budapest benefited from a mix of private enterprise and government willingness to rebuild and maintain monuments, public space such as parks and pedestrian walkways, and physical infrastructure. In my rambles around Budapest, Bucharest and Prague over the last few years, I have found the streets, roads, tramlines, subways, parks, and people-friendly Danube River walks of Budapest most pleasant and appealing. For example, tree-dotted, grassy spots near the Parliament building soften the somewhat forbidding bulk of that neo-Gothic edifice.
On a hot June day after a stroll along the Danube on the building’s west side, it is indeed pleasant to lie in the shade on the east side while the hum of nearby traffic seems to fade away. I had plenty of company. People seemed to like to stretch out on the grass, kick off their shoes, and relax. There were some raucous school groups who had toured, or were going to tour, the Parliament, a bevy of government officials (they sported official badges), and a motley assortment of what seemed to be shoppers, and a few tourists, taking a break. Except for the Hungarian voices, I was reminded of similar restful moments in Central Park in New York, or the Mall in Washington, DC. It was an island of calm in the midst of a bustling, vibrant city.
The physical beauty of Budapest is remarkable, indeed. Alas, the willingness of Hungarians, in Budapest, and in the rest of the country as well, to build a religious and ethnically inclusive society is not as remarkable. The Jews and the Roma, the latter known throughout the world as “gypsies”, are two groups of people that have suffered greatly, in the past and in the present, in Hungary and across Europe. Although the 1868 Nationalities Law declared that Hungarian citizens, of whatever ethnic or religious background, constituted one indivisible nation, the Jewish people and the Roma are too often not seen as part of that nation.
The situation of Budapest’s Jewish population has greatly improved. The Great Synagogue, the Orthodox Synagogue, and others are a testament to the resilience of Budapest’s Jewish community. Several times I discussed with Hungarian friends the Jewish community’s rebirth since the horrors of WWII. The revival is real, yet anti-Semitism remains. Conservative political parties, and more amorphous, yet still dangerous fringe groups express a more virulent anti-Jewish sentiment. Again, “Sunshine” depicts quite vividly Jewish struggles in 19th and 20th century Budapest.
For me, an equally demanding tolerance test in modern Europe is the treatment of the Roma. The condition of the Roma people throughout Europe always has been, and remains, atrocious. (See my prior column on this issue http://www.popmatters.com/columns/thompson/021009.shtml ) They, too, suffered harshly under the Nazis. They were deported to concentration camps and murdered. The rulers of communist East Europe also persecuted them, and tried to destroy their culture. Today the Roma continue to be the most reviled people in Europe. No nation accepts them or their culture. There are few willing to speak out for them. As an insular, nomadic people that seek no nation state, the Roma are a prime target for prejudice. Even the well-intentioned leaders and citizens of post-communist Europe are unsure how to confront this ever-mobile people, as they range from nation to nation across the continent.
I did find Hungarians, at least my friends and the journalists and government officials they introduced me to in Budapest, more concerned about the Roma’s plight than people in other cities in Europe. I realize that those that I met in Budapest are not necessarily representative of the entire Hungarian citizenry. Still, when in June of ‘02 I traveled from Bucharest, Romania’s capitol, to Budapest, it seemed to me that the attitudes in Budapest towards the Roma were more positive than those of Romania’s capitol. Admittedly, my observations are based on fairly short visits to each country. But the Roma in Budapest that I saw, as they trundled about in their horse drawn carts, were not disparaged with either looks or words.
Rather, in Budapest, the small circle of Hungarians that I spoke with seemed more puzzled than angry with the Roma. They expressed uncertainty over how to, or even whether to, integrate or accommodate the Roma into the life of the nation. I was especially impressed by my visit to the Roma Press Center in Budapest. Staffed mostly by Roma but with Hungarians also involved, the Press Center has done yeoman work in publicizing Roma issues all across the Hungarian media.
I admit that I was quite surprised at the number of people at the center who were viewing an exhibit of photographs and documents exploring the treatment of the Roma under Hungarian communism. There were maybe 60 people circulating through three fairly large rooms. A staff member told my colleagues and I that the day’s attendance was somewhat more than the past few days, and was most likely equally split between tourists and locals.
One should not, of course, overemphasize the Center’s influence in the city or elsewhere. Its major impact, according to another staff member, is most likely through the dissemination to the media of the stories about Roma life and concerns. So, I would not claim that Budapest, or Hungary is, was, or ever will be some kind of ethnic or racial nirvana. Keeping in mind the reality that large cities should not be viewed as an entire nation in microcosm, it is true that Budapest’s attitudes are not necessarily echoed throughout Hungary. For Hungary overall, the record is mixed. The NGO Minorities at Risk reported in November ‘02 that while “Overall it can be said that Hungarian Roma have equal rights and a level of equal protection greater than that of most Roma in Eastern Europe . . . current policies are insufficient to adequately address the magnitude of popular discrimination and prejudice against Roma.”
Where tolerance is concerned, Budapest, Hungary, and Europe have much to accomplish. Consider that in America, almost a century and a half since slavery was abolished, racial discord remains a deep and divisive political and social problem. One should not expect that Hungarians, or others in the former Soviet states, should have been able to “solve” the Roma “problem”, or conclusively settle other racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts in the mere 15 years since the collapse of communism.
From atop the Gellert Hill above Budapest, the city seems more tranquil than it is. And yet, when one looks towards the “Liberty Statue” to see the fading weathered spots, around where the large red star hung on the statue’s pediment until ‘92, it is hard to not be optimistic. The people of the city, like the city itself, were brutalized and oppressed. They have rebuilt the city, and are remaking themselves. The reconstructive work goes on.