Schmidt Mária

A memorial and a museum

Jan Mainka interjúja a Terror Háza Múzeum főigazgatójával a The Budapest Times-ban.

Interview with Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror museum

The House of Terror, Hungary´s most controversial but also most successful museum, opened just over ten years ago. It portrays the two Hungarian dictatorships of the past century, including the mechanisms by which they worked. The Budapest Times spoke to the founder and director of the museum, historian Mária Schmidt, about the difficulties immediately after the opening, the anniversary year 2012 and the next decade.

It must be oppressive to work under one roof with torture chambers and much other terrible evidence of the dictatorships of the past century.

We try to detach ourselves from that. This is simply our place of work. However, I don´t find that the feelings of my colleagues and I are deadened over time. It is certainly different emotionally to do research here than in a typical office building.

Nevertheless, the crimes of communism in particular are always in your field of vision. That is not true of the general public.

I wouldn´t say that people suppress the communist past more than the Nazi past. In Hungary the communists ruled for almost half a century. That is not so easily forgotten, especially as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the subsequent terrible reprisals took place during that time. That is part of us. Now on our 10th anniversary many visitors came simply to light a candle. It is a great thing for our country that there is a national place of remembrance like ours. People can come here to grieve, to light a candle for their relatives and remember the victims of the two dictatorships. That we are so esteemed by the public fills my colleagues and me with great pride.

Would you say that the House of Terror is a memorial as well as a museum?

Yes, certainly. Even into the 21st century we still need to remember the crimes of the 20th century. At the same time we must also ensure that we can tackle the challenges of the 21st century as free people. We have enough new challenges that we should not encumber ourselves unnecessarily with the burdens of the past.

Is it then better to forget than to remember?

No, it is not a question of forgetting. We carry the past deep inside us in any case. We need to learn, however, that history has its place in history and not in our current life, particularly when it is a question not of our own lives but the lives of our fathers and grandfathers. It is not healthy for us to keep on experiencing the crimes of the past as our own trauma and own burden, especially as that often leads to over-earnest rituals of being moved. That helps nobody.
How unique is the House of Terror in Eastern Europe?

We were the first institution of this kind in Eastern Europe. Now we have been joined by others. However, we remain the largest such institution and many still regard us as an example to follow. There are now similar museums in the Latvian capital Riga and the Estonian capital Tallin. Something along the same lines is also planned in Poland, and in Bucharest and Kyiv. In Prague there is a small private museum on this topic.

How did it happen that Budapest is home to the prototype of all these museums?

It was simply thanks to a favourable political configuration. The first Orbán government was fully on the side of our initiative. There was great political willpower. Because many people were firmly committed to creating such a museum, the vision finally became reality. Even today after ten years our museum strikes one as anything but outdated. At the beginning that was one thing that led to attacks on us. Our museum was too modern and too unusual in the eyes of many. Like a good wine, a museum needs time. Now there are no longer such attacks.

At the start you were not only attacked because of such outward aspects.

Many people were startled when they say that the museum uses a very effective means of communication. It was able to convey messages that are not to some people´s liking in a very powerful way. It also managed to address people that tend to be difficult to reach otherwise. I am thinking not least of young people. Thick tomes and essays are increasingly less likely to get through to them but our museum and way of communication manages that.

How did the attacks on the House of Terror manifest themselves?

Partly in malicious newspaper articles. Within just one year some 2,600 articles were written against our museum, many even without the author having once visited in person. It simply did not fit with some people´s ideas. That is not surprising given that ultimately our museum contributed effectively to destroying the left wing´s monopoly on interpreting the 20th century. Our museum placed the history of that century in a new, much more powerful framework of interpretation. The main accusation of ten years ago, namely that the two totalitarian dictatorships should not be compared, is today, not least thanks to our efforts, entirely obsolete. Today it is widely recognised that the two totalitarian systems can not only be compared but must be. That is the only way to understand the ways that they worked. Precisely that was our intention. That is why we brought together evidence of both regimes of terror under one roof.

Certainly you couldn´t complain about lack of media coverage.

Through being attacked so vehemently we gained the opportunity to share our views. That meant people began to reflect together with us about our more recent past, both within society and within families. We feel very satisfied that we have contributed to prompting that dialogue and such reflection about the past. Our opponents certainly didn´t think of that effect when they turned on us. They were too furious that somebody had dared to dispute their monopoly on interpreting the past. They were so blinded by sheer rage that it did not occur to them that their attacks on us could have exactly the opposite effect to that intended by them, which ultimately was the case.

In other words your opponents provided you with free marketing.

For months after the opening there were queues of visitors in front of the museum. For a museum we enjoyed and still enjoy great popularity. A visit to the museum is a fixed part of the curriculum for many Hungarian school classes. We are also very popular with many foreign visitors to the capital. We are very proud of all those successes.

You are also criticised for the emotive presentation of the content of your museum.

Yes, particularly by Germans. That is rather odd, if we think about German romanticism. In view of such an emotional past I cannot understand why the Germans are so much against feelings. Again and again I am reproached by the German side for our museum appealing too much to feelings and not enough to the intellect. However, people are primarily creatures of feeling. First one needs to speak to the emotions and then to the intellect. Without emotions nothing works. Although that is an undisputed fact, for most German visitors the issue of the emotions is their primary criticism of the museum. Their main grievance has always been that the museum makes too much of an emotional impact, but that was precisely what I wanted. I wanted visitors to the museum, in particular younger visitors, who are fortunate not to have had to personally experience either of the dictatorships, to be able to experience the full contempt for humanity of both regimes. They should get a feeling of the horror of those regimes and of the incredible number of lives that were destroyed by both. That should also lead to an appreciation of being able to live freely today without fear in a democratic country.

Are such attacks now over?

In Hungary, yes, essentially. Today there are no more attacks. Our museum is fully accepted by the public. Our events are well-attended. Our special exhibitions, talks and conferences address topics that meet with great public interest. We take care not only to present new topics but also new aspects of topics. When covering a topic it is important to us that not only one viewpoint is presented but several. We also regularly invite many experts from abroad to our conferences. We invited, for example, János Kádár´s Russian interpreter of many years to a conference about Kádár. In that way we managed to shed light on points that otherwise we perhaps would have remained in the dark about.

What conferences are coming up in the anniversary year?

In the second half of the year we intend to put on a conference and exhibition about the life and impact of Cardinal József Mindszenty. The cardinal, who was finally fully rehabilitated in March, stood up against both totalitarian dictatorships and spent time in prison under both. He courageously defended Christian values, as well as standing up against specific issues such as the deportation of the Schwabian Germans, the population exchange in Czechoslovakia and people being hauled off to the gulag.

What would you like to achieve with the Mindszenty exhibition?

For decades his person and his role were lied about. In the period of the communist dictatorship his spiritual authority had to be destroyed at all costs. The Christian set of values that he stood up for uncompromisingly were an intolerable threat to the communist ideology. The communists could only overcome that threat by systematically undermining Mindszenty´s reputation. They did such thorough work that this falsified image of him still exists entirely or in part in the minds of Hungarians. Even if he is no longer discredited in the eyes of many today he has still not taken the place that he deserves.

What place is that?

All Hungarians have good reason to be proud of him because he stood up unrelentingly for truth and justice at a time when it was most necessary. At times he was entirely alone in that. He made great personal sacrifices for his faith. He spent almost his entire life either in prison or in exile for his convictions. His whole life is eloquent proof of his commitment to truth and humanity. I find it important to show that there have been people as morally upright as him not only in more distant history but also in our recent past. We need role models like him today. Unfortunately the heroes that the communist regime imposed on us were not real heroes. We need real heroes whose remembrance outlasts periods of time and regime, and who are worth telling our children and the next generations about.

Which special exhibitions of the past years would you particularly highlight?

Personally I found our exhibition about the deportation of the Schwabian Germans particularly worth seeing and informative. It was a very beautiful and at the same time very shocking exhibition. That was the exhibition that attracted the most visitors. Renowned artists whose grandparents were deported accepted our invitation to the opening. That also attracted a lot of attention. Our museum is anything but elitist and aloof. We always try to appeal to as broad sections of the population as possible. In the case of the exhibition about the Schwabian Germans we wanted to show as many people as possible what a terrible loss the expulsion of our Schwabian fellow citizens was and is for Hungary.

What plans do you have for the next decade of the museum?

We want to carry out some renovation work and add an additional larger room for special exhibitions. Some modernisation is urgently needed in terms of visuals and multimedia in the case of the permanent museum. I don´t believe in patching things up here and there. If we embark on the refurbishment, then it should be comprehensive so we will be able to turn our attentions to other things for another ten years. Everything depends on whether we receive the necessary funds from the state.

Why would that be in doubt under the current government?

Certainly not because of a lack of goodwill but at the moment all institutions need to cut back. At present I am very sceptical about additional funds. Right now everything revolves around not overstepping the three per cent budget deficit as demanded by Brussels.

The House of Terror is one of, if not the, most financially successful museums in Hungary. Do you need to worry about your finances nevertheless?

We generate around half of our funds ourselves through ticket sales. That is well above the average, which is around 10 per cent. The lacking funds are mainly obtained by museums from the state. Unfortunately we do not benefit from the fact that we do very well financially compared to other museums. Since the state only has to put up 50 per cent rather than 90 per cent, one might think that it could be a bit more generous towards us. Unfortunately that is not the case. That means we have to look for sponsors, for example for special programmes. When it comes to conferences we have been cooperating for years, for reasons that are also financial, with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Currently we are planning together with the foundation a conference about George Bush senior and his role in ending the Cold War. He was the most important US president for Central and Eastern Europe.

You had particular troubles with your finances immediately after your opening.

Yes, difficult times began for our museum straight after the opening because of the change of government. While the museum was near to the heart of the Fidesz government that was far from true of the Socialist-liberal governments ruling the country from 2002. The junior partner of the MSZP, the SZDSZ, left nothing untried to bring down our museum. In the early years in particular we were constantly threatened and accused. All imaginable tricks and dodges were used in an attempt to undermine us financially. But, as we can see, the SZDSZ is off the scene and we have remained a successful institution. Today the SZDSZ plays a role in the West at most. Hungarian voters were wise enough to show that destructive party the red card. For us it is a great relief that since 2010 we have no longer had to deal with the hate attacks of that party and can concentrate fully on the museum and our academic work. The fact that we were able to survive the difficult eight years is, incidentally, owing in part to the intervention of the Socialists. The former prime minister Péter Medgyessy in particular protected us against the attacks of the SZDSZ, for which the SZDSZ laid into him. Paradoxically we were able to work together more easily with the Socialists, the successors to the Communist Party, than with the liberals, the former dissidents.

How do you explain that strange phenomenon?

Within modern Hungarian democracy the SZDSZ was by far the most doctrinaire party. It is not surprising that the party was removed from Hungary´s political life by the electorate in 2010 because it could no longer be tolerated. Right from the outset the SZDSZ members showed no inclination to tolerate our museum.

Why not?

One reason is that the achievements of others go against the grain for them. That is not surprising given that they have barely anything positive to show for themselves, just ruins. The capital, Budapest, which was run by an SZDSZ city mayor for 20 years, is the best example of the impact of that party. Just think of the catastrophic construction of metro line 4 and the Budapest public transport company BKV, both of whose funds were plundered, and the multifunctional CET building (the Whale, a glass hall on the Danube), which is still standing empty, and so on. Almost everything touched by the members of the SZDSZ ended in disaster, ate up billions of forints of taxpayers´ money or was a quagmire of corruption. When the city leadership passed to conservative hands in 2010 Budapest was financially almost entirely ruined. The only thing the SZDSZ really achieved in Hungary was to ensure that the word ˝liberal˝, which in itself is positive, has become a highly defamatory political term of abuse, and it did so in a country where the greatest politicians were liberals: Deák, Eötvös, Tisza, Bethlen...

How can a former dissident party hate a museum that deals, inter alia, with working through the communist past…

The SZDSZ loathed our museum from the outset. The opening in 2002 was attended by some 130,000 Hungarians. Many of them did so in silent prayer with a candle in their hand. And what was the SZDSZ up to meanwhile? It showed contempt for us and our guests by holding a provocative concert with a jaunty band not far from the museum on Heroes´ Square. That was an impious act beyond compare, particularly if you consider that the museum remembers not only the victims of communism but also those of the Arrow Cross. Luckily, however, voters do not forget such a clearly symbolic act. Who can remember how high the Hungarian GDP was in 2002? But very many citizens can still recall the tasteless behaviour of the SZDSZ. One Hungarian weekly runs a regular survey about the most unpopular party. The list is still led by the SZDSZ although the party effectively no longer exists. The SZDSZ members still haven´t grasped why they are so hated by the population. They don´t understand why nobody is interested any longer in what they have to say and nobody takes any notice of them here. That makes them all the more thankful for the attention and respect that they get from Western politicians and media representatives. I hope gradually word will get out that the former SZDSZ members represent nobody except themselves.

Why did the Socialists support your museum to such an extent?

Not so much from genuine conviction as from tactical considerations. The Socialists were very aware at that time that a majority of our Hungarian and foreign supporters would take a very dim view of the House of Terror being closed. Their whole myth that the MSZP is a new, ˝clean˝ party, rather than a successor party would have been shaken by attacks on our museum. Supporting our museum was simply a question of identity for the Socialists. They would have had a lot of explaining to do abroad if they had closed down the museum. It was as clear as daylight to even the former secret service agent Medgyessy that there was a line that mustn´t be crossed. And in any case, the Socialists never took kindly to their junior coalition partner, the SZDSZ, making attempts to rein them in.

Since 2010 you have been able to work in peace.

Yes, the attacks of the SZDSZ were concentrated in the years until around 2006. When they gradually realised that they were banging their head against a brick wall with the MSZP they grudgingly let us alone. However, it is since 2010 that we have finally been sailing in clear waters.

What wishes and visions do you have?

I hope that we will always have sufficient money available to secure our existence, regardless of which government is in power. The House of Terror has acquired an established place on the Hungarian museum landscape and, what is far more important, in the hearts of Hungarians. Under the aegis of the House of Terror I would like to organise many more conferences and publish works. I would be particularly happy if we could gain support from German as well as Hungarian firms for some future projects.

Jan Mainka