PM Pick

Still Standing: House of Terror

Robert R. Thompson

This Neo-Renaissance building located a pleasant stroll from the Danube River, was once an elegant mansion. During WWII it became known as 'The House of Loyalty', then 'The House of Horror', and now it has settled into a museum named 'The House of Terror'.

It is June 2004, and I am visiting a stylish house, built in 1880 and located on one of Budapest's most attractive boulevards. Upon stepping inside, one is transported back in time. Not too far back, such as the 19th or the early 20th centuries, when the house no doubt hosted elaborate dinner parties and happy celebrations. Rather to a more recent time, between 1945 and 1956, when, instead of the sounds of laughter and joy, the walls echoed with shrieks of pain and cries of suffering. I have been here over an hour, now, and the walls seem to constrict, the rooms become increasingly suffocating. I feel like the man in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Premature Burial"; imprisoned in his tomb, with little air left and no escape.

For those unfortunate Hungarians brought here in 1945-56, a more appropriate literary phrase for their experience might be found in Dante's Divine Comedy, at the gates of hell: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." This Neo-Renaissance building, located a pleasant stroll from the Danube River at Andrassy Ut (Street) 60, is now a museum: "The House of Terror". During 1944-45, when it was called the "House of Loyalty", the building was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis, the Hungarian Arrowcross Party. From 1945-56, after the Soviet Union's "liberation" of Hungary from the Nazis in World War II, the Hungarian communist political police, assisted by Soviet "advisors" [first the State Security Department (AVO), and then the State Security Authority (AVH)] ruled from the building, at that time called the "House of Horrors". From this place, Hungarian Nazis and communists and Soviet communists flung out a net of terror that drew in dissenters, opposition politicians, intellectuals, priests, Jews, and anyone else perceived as a threat to regime power. The prisoners suffered unimaginable violations. They were "interrogated": tortured physically and psychologically, starved, and killed. Political power was maintained with brutality, by, as the Hungarian communist political police called themselves, the "fist of the party".

As I tour the Hungarian House of Terror, I brood about another, more recent House of Terror: Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. "Under Saddam Hussein, Abu Ghraib's crooked concrete block walls and jagged watchtowers corralled as many as 15,000 prisoners at a time, many of whom were tortured and executed." (Jim Krane, Associated Press, 7 May 2004) At Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein treated his enemies as the Nazis and communists did theirs in Budapest's House of Terror. Abu Ghraib is also the place where, as we see in the recent, infamous prison pictures, after the fall of Saddam's regime American soldiers humiliated and abused Iraqi prisoners. Under American occupation, this place retains its name. I tour one House of Terror, think of the other, and ask myself with chagrin: how could Americans tread a path even remotely similar to Nazis, communists, and Saddam Hussein?

The American abuse of Iraqi prisoners cannot be measured as in any way equal to the horrors that took place at 60 Andrassy Ut in Budapest. During the time of Nazi and communist oppression, the entire Hungarian society was ruled from top to bottom by force, fear, and terror. But what is so deeply disturbing about the modern-day American abuse of Iraqi prisoners is that it violates the basic principles that differentiate America from those past regimes: the rule of law and a belief in human dignity. Since 9/11, and in the wake of war and chaos in Iraq, Americans have struggled with the question of how a free society treats its enemies, whether they are terrorists who would destroy us, or prisoners of war. This question haunts my steps as I make my way through the Hungarian House of Terror. Each new room seems more stifling than the one before. The ghosts of prisoners surround me, the ghosts of those who suffered horribly and died in this building. I want to leave but these ghosts hold me back, slow me down. "Look," they urge, "look. Remember, and never forget. This is what people do to others in the name of an ideology. Or, perhaps they do it because they can. Or maybe they do it because they have the power and want to keep it. It doesn't matter! Don't let it happen again." What 60 Andrassy Ut exemplifies, is the complete liquidation of the rule of law, and the total denial of human dignity by those in power.

Enter Gabor Peter's room. Peter was the head of the Hungarian political police, first called the State Security Department, and then, in September 1948, renamed the State Security Authority. The room is on the corner of the first floor, and it is quite sizeable, as befitted such a powerful person. A large desk fills the room. It might be the desk of any high-ranking official, military or civilian. Yet from behind this desk Peter, gave the commands when, "In accordance with the interests of the incumbent party boss and naturally of Moscow, they (the political police) — if ordered to — arrested, tortured and for that matter, beat to death their parents, siblings, lovers, friends, former comrades-in-arms, and even comrades." (Descriptive Sheet, "Room of Gabor Peter, head of the Hungarian Political Police, House of Terror Museum, ND) Back down a narrow corridor from Peter's room, through an anteroom where the minions of the secret police awaited his bidding, is a small room, a cubicle really. It is stark, bare, threatening: a torture chamber. Instruments of torture hang on the wall, ready for use. There is a drain in the middle of the rough concrete floor, to catch, what? water, urine, blood? Victims were dragged down this corridor from the torture chamber to Peter's room to confess their "crimes". If they didn't confess, then they were hauled back down the corridor to the torture room for more "persuasion". Afterward, they were taken down to the basement prison cells.

Before I go down to the basement, the most grim and desolate place in the House of Terror, there are two rooms on the second floor that I must see. One is the room of the Hungarian Nazis, the fascist Arrowcross Party. The other is the room of the Soviet advisors. The first room is set up as the Hungarian Nazis' dinning room. There is a long table with benches on either side, set with Arrowcross Party china. Arrowcross banners adorn the walls. Here the Hungarian Nazis dined on fine china while their victims were brutalized in the rooms below. Around a corner, and down a long hallway, is the other room, the room of the Soviet advisors. This, too, is a large room, but furnished with comfortable chairs, pictures of heroic Soviet citizens on the walls, the Soviet hammer and sickle much in evidence to make guests feel at home in this country. "Soviet advisors 'helped' the political police . . .Their presence at important interrogations assured 'impartial expertise.' Arrests were carried out, political trials organized on the Soviet model with their efficient collaboration." (Descriptive Sheet, "Room of the Soviet Advisors," House of Terror Museum, ND) The Nazis and the communists, Hungarian and Soviet, relaxed, ate, and worked in these rooms, while those that they ordered brought to this place were ferociously, relentlessly beaten, and killed in the very same house.

Now to the tour's final stop. The basement. When the building was reconstructed for the museum, an elevator was installed. It is large and made of glass. At the back there is a video screen. While I slowly descend, the bowels of the building visible around me, a short film plays on a screen in the elevator. In grainy black and white an executioner from the 1950s describes in chilling detail how he employs a "typical" execution. What has happened to this executioner? Is he still alive? His matter-of-fact demeanor unnerves me. I step out of the elevator. Is it night, or day? It's impossible to tell down here. Bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling in the hallways cells. In the reconstructed cells the walls are cool to the touch, yet the air feels thick, stagnant, and stifling. The prisoners "weren't given blankets or a change of clothing Often they were not allowed to go to the toilet, nor were there any buckets in the cells. Prisoners had to lie on wet plank beds, or sometimes even on the bare floor. Sadistic warders beat the detainees at ever opportunity . . ." (Descriptive Sheet, "Reconstructed Prison Cells, House of Terror Museum, ND). The last basement room, called the "Hall of Tears," is a large room, a memorial, painted black, lit by tall, softly glowing, lighted columns, its floor studded with crosses. Heavy silence replaces the screams that, in the past, echoed through this foul basement.

I emerge from the terror house, struggling for air like a diver who has stayed too long in deep water. Andrassy Boulevard is a beautiful street. On either side of the boulevard where cars rush by, are wide strips of grass, with many trees. It is a beautiful day in a beautiful city. A quiet breeze ruffles the grass and the trees, while people ride bicycles along a sun-dappled path beside the street. One can sit on a bench here and watch Budapest pass by. And one can turn back and look up at the building's stern, gray façade. I can't imagine the finely dressed people of the late 19th century as they alighted from fancy horse drawn carriages, and mounted these steps, laughing lightheartedly. I can, however, see clearly those who pass by 60 Andrassy Ut 60 years later. These people avert their eyes, hunch down, pretend not to hear screams, and hope that they, or anyone they care for, are never see the inside of this formerly fashionable mansion.

Just as notorious, but not at all as beautiful, Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison remains in my thoughts as I look at the Budapest House of Terror from the outside, now. Truly, both houses of terror rest on foundations that deny the rule of law, and the innate value of every human life. These houses of terror are not about "politics": they are about power. Yet in America, unlike in fascist or communist Hungary, or in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, we believe in law, human dignity, and the use of democratic political means to prevent the abuse of power. In America we can and must ask questions about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison now, not decades from now.

I have a hard time equating the young American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison pictures with the Nazi and communist soldiers and thugs who perpetrated the atrocities in the torture rooms of the building across the street. Would Private Lynndie England have felt comfortable in the prison chambers of 60 Andrassy Ut? I would like to think not. Yet the pictures of her, smirking while she humiliated naked Iraqi prisoners, must mirror similar scenes from 60 Andrassy Ut. As I write this, Private England's hearing continues. Whether or not the hearing leads to a court-martial for her actions, she is having her day in court. And, what will her day in court reveal about her superiors, about higher American authority? Are there American "Peters" at the heart of the prison abuse?

Private England's defense team wants to call Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other high military personnel. (CNN.com, 3 August 2004) Whether or not those officials are called to appear at the hearing or trial of England any American soldier charged with prisoner abuse, the culpability of American officials, civilian and military, in the prison abuse is a crucial issue. It is possible to argue that Private England acted within a context that permitted and condoned prisoner abuse. We now know that in an August 2002 memo, the Bush administration's Justice Department argued, "the president's wartime powers superseded anti-torture laws and treaties." (Associated Press/ABC News, 22 June 2004) Peter was, no doubt, familiar with this view: law is discarded when it is inconvenient to those in power.

The Justice Department memo's disclosure was quickly followed by Bush Administration's repudiations of the memo. President Bush claimed, "I have never ordered torture," and released more documents about prisoner and detainee treatment. These documents "were meant to deal with a public-relations headache that followed revelations about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq but the documents shed little light on the situation in that country." (The Associated Press/ABC News, 2 June 2004)

When Hungarians hurried by the forbidding gray building at 60 Andrassy Ut during the Nazi and communist era, there was absolutely nothing they could do about what happened inside. But Americans can do something about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse. The Bush administration has brought Americans much too close to 60 Andrassy Ut. And it is up to Americans to hold accountable those who torture, those who order torture, and those who suggest that it is in any way acceptable. We demean American principles, and disparage the Terror House victims' sacrifice, when we echo the actions of iniquitous people in order to defeat them.

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(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

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(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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