Schmidt Mária

The Democratization of Knowledge - Előadás Bukarestben

The Democratization of Knowledge

˝When the time of changes came round
 in these countries at last, it was primarily
owing to their own resistance.˝

William F. Buckley

Regime switching? Regime change? Regime transformation? Regime formation? Why are we unable even to name the events of 1989/1990? Why do we not declare at last that everywhere in our region this miraculous year marks the success of anti-communist revolutions and the national freedom fights aimed at reclaiming national autonomy? After all, these peoples revolted against the communist dictatorship everywhere, with millions of citizens demanding independence, the termination of Soviet occupation, national sovereignty, democracy to ensure liberal rights, and the termination of Communism, or what it was mildly called by many: actually existing Socialism. The Polish had already manifested for a decade: they had enough. The citizens of the Baltic countries formed a live chain and demonstrated singing. The citizens of Budapest, Berlin, Potsdam, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, Prague, Sofia and Zagreb showed their dedication and force in mass demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people. Temesvár (Timişoara) and Bucharest had shed their blood for freedom. It was the year of miracles, a real ˝annus mirabilis˝, in which the citizens of the German Democratic Republic voted against the survival of the GDR with their feet, marching on the streets and scanning ˝We are the people!˝ (˝Wir sind das Volk!˝). Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians went out to the street to protest against the diversion of the Danube and the construction of the planned barrage, to greet the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II on his visit to Budapest, to demonstrate against the village destruction scheme of Ceauşescu, and last but not least to organize a worthy funeral for the heroes of 1956. In 1989 and 1990 Hungarians and the other peoples of the region decided to take control of their own lives and refuse to stay under foreign rule and the communist dictatorship enforced upon them any longer. Regime change? Regime transformation? Regime formation? Regime switching? None of these. This is what is called a revolution.

The changes were also of a revolutionary nature. National independence instead of foreign occupation, private property instead of state and community ownership, a multi-party system instead of the single-party system, free elections, the enforcement of liberal rights: the freedom of speech, assembly, religion and press, and the freedom of opinion and expression. The wave of these victorious revolutions eliminated Soviet control and Communism from our region, leaving hardly any traces behind. We took possession of our countries and our lives again.

And yet it is not by accident that the events are not called as they are by many even today. It seems to lie in the interest of many to strengthen and maintain the idea that our fate merely depended on the agreements among the elites. This idea provided an acceptable reason on the basis of which the ruling party of the former single-party state and its corresponding elite could remain eligible and those responsible could avoid being called to account, as indeed it happened.

The first bitter disappointment that the Eastern European participants of the anti-communist revolutions in the region experienced was due to the appearance of Western European elites. As these latter tried to keep post-communist leaders in power, the endeavor supported an act of true justice and thus it made it possible for the discredited post-communist actors not to undergo the deligitimation process. Also as a result of this Western European support, the post-communist elite managed to preserve and maintain the majority of its earlier positions in the new form of government up until the most recent past.

Nevertheless, despite all that have been said, it must not be denied that a part of the Hungarian elite did well in those years changing the fate and the political situation of the country. This is why we did not lose our best compatriots in civil wars or waste our energies fighting against one another. And this is why – having left the bloody massacres of the twentieth century behind – we did not claim any more lives, did not force anyone to emigrate, or suffer any further human losses. We were satisfied with the fact that our revolution resulted in a new political system and that we regained our national sovereignty, and we understood that it would take a long time to change our society, if at all possible.

Nevertheless, the new, independent and democratic Hungary was still split into two camps by a deep gap. While a part of our society showed a deep connectedness with the single-party state that ceased to exist, the other part comprised opponents of the former system as well as people who only tolerated the dictatorship or had to suffer under it. All the more so because after the peaceful transition a significant part of the elite of the former dictatorship could keep the positions that it acquired and enjoyed earlier in the economy and in the society. This is proven by the fact that in the year 2009, that is, before the second Orbán cabinet took office, every third actor of the political elite was still a former member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers´ Party, the ruling party of the single-party state. Thus, it followed obviously that these people denied the true, delinquent nature of the former dictatorship. We know only too well that the biggest beneficiaries of communist dictatorships were not only leading Party functionaries, but also intellectuals, that is, highly qualified people who justified the misdeeds by explaining or simply denying them. The old intellectual elite had a monopoly on the interpretation of the past for more than half a century and it could preserve all crucial positions in science and in the media. As a consequence, this group of intellectuals had enough opportunities to achieve that none of those who sustained the dictatorship could have been held accountable for it. And what is more, these people were even in the position to make any attempts at clarifying responsibilities ridiculous. Here lay the reason for the first of the so-called media wars that took place in the early 1990s. Due to the activities of the post-communist media elite, no process of social catharsis ensued that could have led to a profound processing of the period of dictatorship by way of a confrontation with the communist past.

The endeavor to come to terms with and overcome the past is highly difficult, indeed. Nobody is pleased, if they are confronted with things that they are not happy to recall. If we charge a person with unjustifiable crimes and deeds, or even if we only remind him of these, he will feel uneasy. Nobody likes it if he is reminded of his silence, lack of compassion or betrayal. Nevertheless, it is our duty to reveal those crimes that ruined the lives of entire generations and humiliated millions of people while depriving them of their lives, their family members and their freedom. It is our duty, even if retrospectively, to do justice to these people and to preserve their memory.

The House of Terror Museum

˝A single word of truth ways more
than the whole world.˝


We had waited for more than a dozen years in vain for the perpetrators and those responsible to be held accountable. So that they ask us for forgiveness. And then we took action. We chose a different path. We decided to build a memorial site for the victims: a place where one can light a candle in memory of the displaced, the deported and the imprisoned as well as those beaten to death, tortured, orphaned and widowed. Therefore we looked for a location that embodied both inhumane dictatorships of the 20th century – the reign of terror of the Nazis and those of the communists – most strikingly in the eyes of the Hungarian society. We singled out the house under 60 Andrássy Avenue, which, at first sight, might seem to be an insignificant building in the old bourgeois style of the 19th century, but which, due to its scary history, is synonymous with the concept of terror.

Thus we opened the ˝House of Terror Museum˝ on February 24, 2002 under 60 Andrássy Avenue, a location that symbolizes both reigns of terror. Between October 15, 1944 and 1956 the building was an important venue of both of these dictatorships. Arrow Cross Party leaders (the Hungarian counterparts of National Socialists) set up their headquarters here, and a part of the victims were also confined here after their displacement during the tragic winter months of 1944-1945. Shortly after the Arrow Cross Party leaders left the building in January 1945, the communist state police turned the building to its headquarters, and terrorized Hungarian citizens from this house for more than a decade. People were not allowed to talk about anything for decades that had happened under 60 Andrássy Avenue. Thus, as a result of both the historical experiences and being forced to keep silent about them, the house itself had merged with the concept of terror in Hungary. Nevertheless, generations have grown up since then without having directly experienced either of the two reigns of terror. Still, the historical remembrance preserved the tragic memory of this house also for these people. The building was unsuccessfully disguised for decades as an elegant office building, because everyone knew that it was not what it looked like. Pedestrians crossed the street whenever they had to pass the building until the fall of communism, because they did not even dare to take a closer look at the house. The locals of Budapest developed an attitude towards the building which was similar to many other oppressive legacies of the past that dominated our everyday lives. The house belonged to the unclarified and unprocessed part of our past.

We made the building reminding us of state-perpetrated crimes in two totalitarian regimes conspicuous in its environment by architectural means so that it become visible for all that this had been the house of fear. We cut the symbols of both of the dictatorships and the word ˝terror˝ into the wide cornice so that the sun cast a shadow forming these marks on the gray walls of the house. A shadow that once darkened our everyday lives. However, these shadow marks get broken on the contours of the facade, at the memorial of the victims of the two dictatorships. Since neither of them has power anymore. The house is framed in black, as a sign of mourning, so that everyone can see: this is a memorial site for the victims. Although the sight is reminiscent of the period of dictatorships, it also makes us aware that the time of fear is over, we can enter through the gate, and the secrets are revealed. The past is locked in the museum.

When entering the building two granite blocks welcome the guest: a black one and a red one. The black one commemorates the victims of the Arrow Cross reign, while the red one is a memorial of the victims of communist terror. The exhibition content is focused on two events: the occupation of the country by the Nazis in 1944 and the country´s subsequent occupation by the Soviets. These two events form the beginning, and the exhibition is closed with the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1991. This chronology provides a frame to the exhibition, although the rooms on the two floors present the true nature of Nazi and communist terror from 1944 to 1963. The reconstructed cellar recalls the dreaded torture chambers that used to be the prison of the Hungarian Nazis and the communist state police. Thus the cellar is a memento of the victims of both totalitarian dictatorships. Photos hang on ˝the wall of perpetrators˝ and names of those responsible for deeds committed in either of the two dictatorships are displayed. Thus, the House of Terror Museum processes, in essence, the history of Hungarian dictatorships and reigns of terror through the history of the building.

The location itself bears not only a historical value, but it also has an immense communicative power, because some of the victims and perpetrators are still alive. Children and grandchildren are often confronted with the concealed history of their family and thereby also with the feeling of shame by taking a look at the photos hanging on ˝the wall of perpetrators˝. This is the first time history is publicly told in the way it is represented in the House of Terror Museum. Neither had it been taught in schools, nor had it been discussed in social discourse this way. The memory of terror, that is, the fearful and painful past, had spread only by word of mouth from parents to children until the opening of the museum. This is the first time it is displayed at this site. This is the first time that the locals are confronted with the immeasurable suffering of a nation that has suffered much. This had a traumatic effect.

The House of Terror Museum had immediately become a place of pilgrimage. Those who wanted to commemorate the victims and the heroes turned the house to a national memorial site. At the time of historical anniversaries, huge masses of people gather around the museum holding candles of remembrance in their hands. Since we already have a place for this. For common remembrance. The common memory, the collective experience of the fate of a community reinforces mutual trust. If we can share our suffering with someone, and he can share his suffering with us, the processing of grief is easier, as it helps to process the unprocessable.

The House of Terror Museum has been in the focus of attention since its opening. All have taken sides with respect to the house. More than 10,000 newspaper articles have dealt with the museum, and there has also been extensive media coverage in television and radio channels. The international press has also paid much attention to the House of Terror. The news of the institution has reached millions of people worldwide, long documentaries on the House of Terror Museum in Budapest have been broadcast in all former socialist countries. With the establishment of the museum we have achieved more than we had ever hoped for. It seems that the wounds have begun to heal due to contact with outside air.

The history that we represent is Hungarian history. Hungarians comprise perpetrators and victims. No differentiation has been made on the basis of race, religion or class origin. In our understanding, there is only a clear dividing line between perpetrators and victims. In our view, the fact that we are allowed to display this part of the past in a museum can feed our hope that we have overcome this past, and that it does not affect our lives today anymore.

Our project is also of major significance in another respect, and this has been confirmed in the relatively short time that has passed since the museum´s opening. That is to say, the creation of the museum has set in motion a wide-ranging discussion, an exchange of views on the historical periods on display: a discussion about the participants and the inevitable questions of personal opinion on the past.

Visitor numbers are enormous, considering that about 4 million guests have seen the exhibition, which means: almost every second Hungarian has visited our museum. The simple but at the same time effective presentation worth seeing significantly increased the target group. A huge number of students, whole classes under the guidance of their teachers visit the museum. After visiting the exhibition, older visitors often offer their personal items or well-kept family documents and photos for the collection of the museum. There are documents that had been hidden for decades, but having seen the exhibition, the visitors are convinced that the museum is the perfect place to keep these family relics. Surveying the victims still alive or their family members as well as those people who played a role in the events on display is one of the important tasks of the museum. We have a collection of filmed interviews that keeps growing day to day, which shows that we carry out the task of allowing the witnesses to speak with care.

Visiting the House of Terror Museum is also one of the objectives of the tourists coming to Hungary. Having visited the exhibition, they understand us better. Those who come to Hungary from countries that have had no similar experiences with dictatorships can form a picture of what we have been through in the last century. And the others recognize their own experiences once again. We only meet with incomprehension from western and especially German media professionals and left-wing intellectuals. Despite the fact that one half of Germany had to suffer two dictatorships just as Hungary, these professionals and intellectuals take a dismissive attitude towards all our endeavors aimed at the discovery and description of the true nature of the communist past. The House of Terror Museum has received only negative reviews in the German mainstream press. The focal point of the constant attacks has been the fact that the exhibition is only partially devoted to the tragedy of the Holocaust, as it displays the atrocities of two totalitarian regimes – due to the history of the building – side by side. It is simply ignored that there is another museum in Budapest, founded in the same year, which is exclusively devoted to the Holocaust.

The House of Fates

„The confession of murder and the assessment of loss
is the beginning of every great life, also that of nations.˝

Imre Kertész

Creating a lively and compassionate language of expression based on common experience is a good way to democratize knowledge. The past, comprising our shared experiences and memories, belongs to us all; it is the origin of identity and that of essential morals. Therefore we must not wrap it in an alienating garment for specialists. This ice-cold distance between people and history described as ˝objective˝ was punished with disinterest in the case of the Holocaust Museum in Budapest. In contrast to the House of Terror Museum that created a new language, as that institution was consciously designed for the visitors of the 21st century, the exhibition of the Páva Street Holocaust Museum in Budapest was compiled by so-called academic experts. The judgment on the exhibition comprising a hardly perceptible overflow of data, masses of texts and exhibited materials of other kinds was by no means issued by academic critics or political actors, but by the visitors. There have been less than 15 thousand visitors per year. In other words, the ignorance of common experiences as well as the choice of an elitist approach and language have led to the painful lack of interest on the part of the population. Knowing this, the second Orbán cabinet decided to build a new memorial at the site of the former Józsefváros Railroad Station, which is steeped in history. Since the creative team of the House of Terror Museum was commissioned with the task of developing the concept of the exhibition, let me share some thoughts with you related to the design of the planned ˝House of Fates˝.

According to our plans, the ˝House of Fates˝ will be made up of three main parts, namely an exhibition, an education and a training section. The exhibition section is divided into three units. The first unit is the permanent collection, which takes 50 to 60 minutes to tour. The area of this exhibition is shielded so that visitors cannot use any electronic device there. The story that is related here focuses on the period between 1938 and 1948, and is based nearly exclusively on recollections of survivors. It is supposed to touch the feelings of the visitor, make him interested and, ideally, to prompt him to ask questions. The installation and the narrative are both targeted primarily at the 14 to 24 year-old generation. Having toured this exhibition unit the visitor can proceed to see the ˝exploration section˝ or go on to look at the other ˝chamber˝ exhibitions. Upon entering the exploration section the visitor is (or may be) given a tablet, with the most important information concerning the items on display as well as the history of the European Holocaust, including names, dates, and a lexicon, along with questions and assignments. According to our plans the chamber exhibitions will show the history of humanitarian rescuers as well as that of the representatives of the resistance. Furthermore, the 1944 events that took place in the venue, that is, the Budapest Józsefváros Railroad Station, will also be on display, along with the story of the Jewish community of Budapest´s eight district called Józsefváros. This is where the walls of perpetrators, those responsible and the humanitarian rescuers will also be installed. A number of computer workstations will also be installed where additional information and data can be collected and studied.
We are planning to offer activities for the ˝Y generation˝ in the Education Center.
We also deem it important to offer a training program for teachers.

Europe – our common homeland

˝Sweet life, prosperity and the glamour of forty years without responsibility over one´s unique opportunities flourished in the better parts of Europe. Now that the Russians have yielded Eastern Europe to them the problems start to appear in those parts as well. This is called political responsibility – something that they had not borne, in essence, for anyone for more than forty years.˝
                           Imre Kertész

Let us hope that the attitude of Western European and especially German left-wing opinionists that we have encountered in connection with the processing of the communist past, marked by misunderstanding and rejection so far, will slowly change. It belongs here too that no judgments should be made in Strasbourg that contest the right of Hungarian citizens to regard the hammer and sickle as a forbidden symbol of the dictatorship and to ban it. Once we get to the point that the atrocities of the Nazis and those of the communists are judged in the same manner, the dialogue between the two halves of Europe can begin. If it is acknowledged at last that those terrible historical experiences that our citizens have been through after 1944 are at least as important as the sufferings of the Western European citizens during World War II, we will really be able to start thinking in a common European framework. This obviously requires, however, that our partners in this debate accomplish their own task in this reassessment. Why and how had they assisted Moscow? Why and how did they help and do they still help Moscow and the communists to conceal and legitimize their guilty character? Until this is done, we cannot feel at home here in Europe.

For what kind of Europe is the one that does not allow the societies that have just left the communist dictatorship behind to take their own past filled with sufferings with them? You know it just as well as I do that every person ceases to exist that is deprived of his past. The same can be said about communities and nations. Building a common Europe presupposes that we all have an ear to listen to everybody else’s stories and are empathic enough for the pain experienced by others. Our task is to change the one-sided nature of the narrative, which is still the case today.