BUDAPEST – Few residents would disagree that the capital’s newest museum, the House of Terror, is haunted. The museum, in an elegant former apartment building in the heart of the city, was the headquarters of the Hungarian fascist movement during World War II. It was later the nerve center of the dreaded communist political police.
But the ghosts of a turbulent history have not been put to rest. Fourteen years after Eastern Europe shrugged off communism in favor of free elections and free markets, interpreting the past often provokes fierce controversy. Since it opened in February 2002, the museum continues to foster a storm of debate.
Opponents say that the previous rightist government had raced to complete the museum, which is state-funded, so it could be used as a campaign gimmick in elections last year.
Supporters reply that the socialist-led government, voted into office a year ago by a slim margin, is now threatening to slash the House of Terror’s budget, reshuffle its executive board, and change its exhibits – if not close it.
“We’re very proud of it,” said Maria Schmidt, 50, the museum’s director. “In the past year it became the most important subject of Hungarian political life.”
More than 300,000 people have visited the museum, which is intended to have a powerful effect. Few seem likely to leave without a chill running down their spines.
In designing the exhibits, Schmidt said, planners studied two dozen museums around the world, including the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
The multilevel exhibit is centered on an atrium. An old Soviet tank stands in a shallow pool of water. The monochrome faces of victims of terror rise up in a grid along one side of a courtyard.
In a long room titled “gulag,” a large-scale map of the Soviet Union stretches across the floor to give a sense how far from home hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were exiled by the communists after World War II. The wooden walls of the room resemble those of a cattle car; on video screens, the Russian steppe flashes by as if seen from a moving train.
The exhibition begins with the short-lived but brutal German occupation of Hungary in 1944. Yet the main focus is on the early years of communist rule, which began when the Soviet army defeated the Nazis and their cohorts from the Hungarian fascist party, the Arrow Cross. The communist political police, known as the AVO and later as the AVH, took over the Arrow Cross and directed the Stalinist-inspired terror from the very rooms that now house the museum.
The most chilling part of the exhibition are the reconstructed jail cells in the basement, where political prisoners were tortured and often killed. The political police moved out of the building in 1956, the year that Soviet troops crushed the uprising in Budapest.
For some the museum is a slick presentation with little substance. A surly guard outside the building keeps visitors waiting in line as if they were trying to enter a popular nightclub. Foreigners are required to pay twice as much – about $13 – for entry as Hungarians, a relic of communist-era double-pricing in which hard currency was milked from tourists.
Dramatic music, sounding much like a film score, fills many of the rooms.
“It’s absolutely professional kitsch. It’s something I don’t admire, but I look at it with respect,” said Laszlo Rajk, 54, a former communist-era dissident.
Even critics of the museum agree that the building is a symbol of both fascist and communist terror and that it warrants some sort of exhibition. But here agreement on the House of Terror ends.
“It’s a totally antihistorical, ahistorical, politically organized exhibition,” said Laszlo Karsai, 53, a historian at Szeged University in southern Hungary and one of the museum’s harshest opponents.
He said the creators had tried to draw a line of continuity between communist torturers of the Soviet era and left-of-center politicians of the present.
“The message is simple: Almost every Hungarian is innocent. The main guilty are foreign forces: first the Germans, then the Russians and very, very few collaborators,” Karsai said. “Therefore, today only a collaborator could vote for a socialist or liberal.”
Karsai, one of Hungary’s top Holocaust scholars, also questioned why only two rooms in the museum are dedicated to fascist terror, which led to the deaths of more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews, while the rest of the exhibition focuses on the Stalinist terror, which is reported to have claimed 3,000 victims.
Museum supporters have replied by pointing out that Budapest’s own Holocaust Museum and documentation center is scheduled to open by 2005.
Rajk, the former dissident, said that the House of Terror is one-sided. “The lack of complexity is a problem not only of the Terror House but of the whole approach to communism in Eastern Europe,” he said. “Because of a lack of analysis, people fall into the same trap as the communists did 50 years ago.”
Rajk’s father, also named Laszlo was a hard-line communist interior minister in the late 1940s, and he oversaw the work of the AVO. In 1949, he became the victim of a purge and was executed after a show trial. The young Rajk was only a few months old at the time.
“What bothers me is not that my father is on the wall of the guilty or of the victims or both. The problem is the oversimplification of his career,” Rajk said. He complained that rather than explore how many leftist idealists became torturers, the House of Terror brands them as “bad guys.”
Probably the most disputed section is a passageway in the cellar covered with several hundred black-and-white photographs of “victimizers,” with name, rank, and year of birth. Most, it seems, are alive. Visitors to the House of Terror’s website can “register” a victimizer.
“It’s the most sensitive question about the political transition,” Rajk said. “What do you do with the guilty?”
The question continues to plague Hungary today. The Socialist prime minister, Peter Medgyessy, was discredited last summer when it emerged that he had worked for communist-era counterintelligence. But conservative politicians also have had to confess connections to a murky past.
Amid the acrimony, museum director Schmidt says that the House of Terror stands as “a symbol of a democratic country, that not only a leftist or post-communist way of thinking is possible.”
But Karsai said that the museum is more symbolic of Hungarian society’s polarization.
“I’m very sad. After the collapse of communism, I had the dream to live in a free, liberal, democratic country. . . . But the country is extremely divided, into two or three factions. Between the factions there is no debate, but mutual hate and distrust.”