In one of the most beautiful avenues of Budapest, Andrássy Road, is a museum dedicated to the two 20th century horrors, Nazism and Communism. House of Terror (Terror Háza) does not differentiate between the two toxic ideologies. After all, they are the same thing with different packaging – one in black, the other in red. That they hate and fought each other is not evidence to the contrary, merely evidence of territorial in-fighting.
In winter of 1944, when the Hungarian Nazis came to power, hundreds of people were tortured in the basement of the house in 60 Andrássy street. In 1945 Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Army. One of the first tasks of the Hungarian communists arriving with the Soviet tanks was to take possession of the location. The building was occupied by their secret police, the PRO, which was later renamed ÁVO, subsequently ÁVH (names for political police). The entire country came to dread the terrorist organisation. The ÁVH officers serving at 60 Andrássy Road were the masters of life and death. Detainees were horribly tortured or killed. The walls of the cellars beneath the buildings were broken down and transformed into a prison.
After the end of communism in Hungary, 60 Andrássy Road has become a shrine, the effigy of terror and the victims’ memorial. At least in Hungary they recognised that the ‘past must be acknowledged’. The exhibition is a visual feast, both in the artefacts displayed and in the symbolism of their arrangement. The rooms have themes and objects in them are meant to create an atmosphere as well as communicate facts. Alas, the visual beauty conjures an image of a retro nightmare – distant and unreal it masks the brutality and dull reality of communist terror.
There is an exquisitely designed hall dedicated to Soviet forced-labour and slave camps. There are reminiscences, photographs and the display cases contain relics, the original paraphernalia used by the people detained by the Soviets and taken to gulags. And yet, it does not squeeze your heart and make you sick to your stomach. The muted light and the droning voice of the audio guide fail to convey the tragedy. By trying to describe the suffering of many thousands, they miss the opportunity to make us feel the suffering of one, to put ourselves in their place, imagine our lives being arbitrarily and brutally torn apart. And to remember that this did not happen in some kind of parallel universe, that this is history next door.
I wanted to know the people whose meagre possessions I was looking at in the display cases. Their names, stories, family, circumstances, fates. I believe that the best and only way to understand Communism and Nazism is through the lives of individuals who were affected by it not through a historical methodology or chronological exposition.
And so we need to be told about their neighbours reporting and spying on them, children betraying parents, we need to hear the tales of endurance, mercy and resistance that no historical narrative can capture. We document history in such impersonal terms and yet there is nothing more powerful then actions of a man. We look for overarching explanations but historical causality without human beings and their behaviour leaves the patterns of history indistinct, lacking in colour and texture. Everyday life is as important to understanding of what happens as are historical milestones. It might help people realise how little it takes for the society to find itself in a grasp of a toxic ideology and how gradual the decline can be, how unnoticed the erosion of freedom, dignity and moral strength.
If I had the time and resources, I would gather the human details about communism, not just the historical facts, and create a place where others can ‘re-live’ the individual tales. I would try to explain what it took to survive and resist. I would address the connection between totalitarianism and bureaucracy – why is it that an already unhinged and all powerful regime is so obsessed with record-taking, papers and stamps, correct documentation…? I would point at the need inherent in any totalitarian ideology for an external enemy, and by extension its internal allies. I would expose the mundane and ridiculous reasons for which people were sent to prison, torture and death. I would throw light on the ‘little helpers’ without whom no authoritarian regime can succeed – the nosy neighbour, ambitious boss, jealous colleague, petty family member… and at the ‘silent majority’ who by ‘minding their business’ and ‘just getting on with their lives’ lend credence to the ravings of the power-mad ruling class. I would examine propaganda, not through the posters, broadcasts and mass demonstrations but through the eyes of children growing up under the barrage of idiotic but effective brainwashing.
And finally, I would bring up the horrors of arrest, detention, interrogations, beatings and torture, imprisonment and executions, hiding in history’s basement and cellars. Both the victims and the interrogators. Who were the people who carried out the daily atrocities? What and how did they believe? Where are they now? Did they go back home to their families at the end of the day, having broken a few more bodies and spirits? Did they do this out of fear? Or were they merely sadists gravitating to the communism sanctioned violence towards their fellow human beings? I would name them and publicly decry their deeds, spell out their participation. The Nazis got that treatment but when will such judgement be upon the Communists? Why is the hammer and sickle not abhorred the same way the swastika is? After all, it has brought evil to many more people…
Failing that, here are the pictures from the House of Terror in Budapest. The museum is an excellent reminder of what happened in just one dreaded house. And to think that there were many more.
The photos were taken despite the ban on photography in the museum. I did play along and kept my camera away until I came across a quote that sums up the deranged mindset of a communist ideologue. I wanted to make a note of it to look it up later and the fastest way was taking a photo. After the first furtive but successful attempt, it was impossible to resist taking more pictures.
Here is the quote* that goes to the heart of implementation of communism – and any other totalitarian ideology. It eradicated any notion of individual responsibility and therefore freedom, autonomy, rights and justice. And that is the essence of terror.
We do not look for evidence, we do not attempt to uncover acts or agitation against the Soviets. The first question we ask is: where are you from, how were you raised, what was your profession? These questions determine the fate of the defendant. This is the essence of the red terror. – M.J. Lacisz, Chief of ÁVO, the Hungarian political police.
*Credit for the translation goes to Zoltán Módly. The Hungarian version: “Nem keresünk bizonyítékokat, tanúkat, nem akarunk szovjetellenes tetteket vagy agitációt leleplezni. Az elsŠ‘ kérdés, ami minket érdekel: honnan származol, milyen volt a neveltetésed, mi volt a foglalkozásod? Ezek a kérdések döntenek a vádlott sorsáról. Ez a vörös terror lényege.”