Front of the Queue in Budapest

One of my earliest political memories is the falling of the Berlin Wall and my parents trying to explain the event’s significance that a divided continent was coming back together.  Since then, my travels have taken me to different countries which were behind the Iron Curtain.  In this series I’m reflecting on how the former East and West could be seen as growing together but, when travelling, still remain distinctive.  This final part recalls my experiences in Berlin, Krakow and Prague as I visit a fourth city: Budapest.

I’m British – I know how to queue: it seems to be a part of our DNA. In shops, waiting for a bus or anywhere else, I’ve had a bit of  bit of practice over the years. But the Hungarians take it to a whole different level and queue politely everywhere and, most impressively, whilst waiting at bar. No elbows or trying to force your way in. A line is formed, even in the thirsty wait for alcohol.  This typically Hungarian habit reveals something of the country’s psyche, long history and approach to life.

A walking tour of Budapest reveals much about Hungary’s and Europe’s recent history.  Starting on the banks of the Danube, shoes cast out of metal mark the spot where Jews were shot and fell in to the river during the Second World War.  In the middle of Pest a memorial of a man reaching out to rescue a falling woman, marks the role of the Swiss Consul in rescuing Jews.  These were challenging times and the memorials remember the losses and heroes of the Nazi regime.

A short walk away, in the House of Terror, the story of the rise and early years of the Communist regime is told and provides an experiential, accessible introduction to the history of this city.  It tracks the rise of communism and the start of the cold war, giving a real understanding of the 1956 uprising.  Riots and protests led to an attempt to leave the Warsaw Pact.  The subsequent Soviet invasion and lack of western intervention led to thousands of deaths and a continuation of the communist regime for well over a generation [1].

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Memento Park

In addition a brutal crackdown after the 1956 [2], there was a push for a communist culture which could be seen in the memorials and statues of the city, now collected in Momento Park, a few miles outside the city.  Following the fall of communism, they were collected at this out of town location.  Although it is not possible to talk of a single version of communism [3], this park acts as a reminder of the Hungarian version with its communist heroes and vignettes depicted on a gargantuan scale.

Back in the centre, a Memorial in Parliament Square remembers those who died during the fall of the communist era.  Over time, through economic crises and a gradual erosion of the original systems [3], unrest grew with Hungary opening its borders and people fleeing to Austria [4, 5].  The memorial itself is a little underwhelming but, for me, tried to mark that walk from darkness to light.

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Ruin Bar

Returning to the Jewish quarter, contemporary Hungary can be seen in its the Ruin Bars.  They are symbolic, almost, of the changing fate of the city from the 1990s onwards.  In buildings destroyed over the years, entrepreneurs have set up bars around the former Jewish quarter of Pest – they range from the sophisticated to the bohemian.  Nearby, little pop restaurants around Madách Imre are popular with locals for their innovation and creativity.  The scars of the past are being turned into centres of entertainment and pleasure.  They’re the hippest places to be and indeed, if anything, are becoming too full of tourists.

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Two-Tailed Dog: Political Protest Party

Yet across the city, including in the very bars where you drinking, there are signs of the current political crises and divisions splitting Hungary.  There are stickers and graffiti advertising the Two-Tailed Dog Party (Magyar Ketifarku Kutya Part – MKKP) [2] which looks to flag the absurdities in contemporary Hungarian politics but are symbolic of a lack of historic lack of trust in politics which pre-dates communism [6].  There’s a current fear of immigration, the loss of Christian values and a general increase in the popularity of harder right parties [7].  The complex history of Europe has led to a unique political culture in Eastern countries [8] which continues despite the efforts of the EU to professionalise the civil service [9] and to exert Soft Power through strategic funding of social & economic reforms [10].  The cranes which litter Budapest’s skyline are repairing years of underinvestment in infrastructure but there remains a longer-term task to imbed democratic values [10].

At the start of this piece, I remarked that the Hungarians liked queuing.  And – just to push the metaphor a little further – there are other ways in which the country is at the head of the queue.  It was one of the first countries to challenge communist rule with its failed revolution in 1956.  It was among the first to open its borders and organise its opposition through the Pan-European Picnic in 1989 [10, 11].  It’s a city that has some of the same trends as the other cities in this series of “East meets West” blog posts: the reducing scars witnessed in Berlin, the multiple actors pushing for freedom encountered in Krakow’s churches and the same push for distinctiveness as in Prague.

Any trip to Budapest would not be complete without a visit to the Baths which remind the visitor of a different age when the city was one of the capitals of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire. As I lay in the spa waters, admiring the fine architecture, any East or West distinction seemed insignificant; rather, I was struck by the great history, beauty and warmth I had encountered during these travels.

 

References

I have a series of travel tips including recommended books & podcasts in a separate blog post: Travel Tips: Budapest.

 

[1] Mr Allsop History Pod; GCSE-iGCSE Revision: Cold War Revision: Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968.  Available since 06/02/09 at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/gcse-igcse-history-revision/id174839785?mt=2&i=49942408

[2] Lampland, M. (2016) “What Happened to Jokes?” The Shifting Landscape of Humor in Hungary. East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 30(2), pp.449–471.

[3] Schopflin, G. (1990) The End of Communism in Eastern Europe.  International Affairs, 66(1), pp.3-16.

[4] Dragostinova, T. (2009) 1989 Twenty Years On: the End of Communism and the Fate of Eastern Europe.  Origins. 3(3), URL: https://origins.osu.edu/print/64

[5] Simms, B. The Autumn of Nations – 25 Years After.  What was the ‘Autumn of Nations’ in 1989 about and how are the events of that time to be understood?  European Network Remembrance & Solidarity, URL: http://www.enrs.eu/

[6] Ablonczy, B. The Two Sides of Regime Change – the Hungarian Experience.  Remembrance and Solidarity Studies, 3.  European Network Remembrance & Solidarity, URL: http://www.enrs.eu/

[7] BBC World Service/Maria Margaronis, The Documentary: Hungary at the cutting edge.  Broadcast on 17/05/16.  Available at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03m3463

[8] Ceka, B. & Sojka, A. (2016) Loving it but not feeling it yet? The state of European identity after the eastern enlargement.  European Union Politics, 17(3), pp.482–503.

[9] Meyer-Sahling, J-H., Lowe, W. & van Stolk, C. (2016) Silent professionalization: EU integration and the professional socialization of public officials in Central and Eastern Europe.  European Union Politics, 17(1), pp.162–183.

[10] Balázs, P. [Ed.] (2014) 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain: The state of integration of East and West in the European Union. (Brussels: European Commission).

[11] Schmidt, C. From the East German Holiday in Hungary and the Paneuropean Picnic to the German Re-Unification.  European Network Remembrance & Solidarity, URL: http://www.enrs.eu/

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