Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Budapest, Hungary: at the Crossroads of History

Budapest's unofficial mascot seems to be the greatest cat of all--the lion
Its major indoor market is called the Great Market, though some call it the Central Market. Everywhere you look, it seems as if Budapest was the center of great things--a long time ago.
And indeed it was. Europe's largest and most vibrant Jewish community--450,000 Jews--was in Hungary. 
Europe's largest synagogue is in Budapest and nearby is perhaps its most beautiful one. 
The most colorful synagogue I've ever seen. Not Dohany St. but an Orthodox one on Kazinczy St.

Then came Austrian-born Hitler and the rest, as they say, is history. 
From the Museum of Terror--a must-see.

Few people know the Soviet Union liberated the Jews in Budapest or that Hungary was allied with defeated Nazi Germany. 
From Dohany St Synagogue, Jewish Museum

The consequences of post-WWII agreements continue today across Eastern Europe. Everywhere the Americans and Brits had jurisdiction is more open, and everywhere the Soviets controlled has been more sedate. Two factors are responsible for such cultural demarcation: the Soviet's economic system, which provided stable jobs and pay but no incentives for entrepreneurship--creating total dependency on the state--and the Soviet Union's habit of brutally suppressing dissent.  
From Hungarian National Museum

I've been struggling to understand why so many liberators and victors become exactly like their enemies, such as America's NSA mirroring East Germany's Stasi, and I think I have a partial reason. After WWII, the Soviet Union lost 26 to 27 million citizens. It liberated millions of people previously under the yoke of Nazism. It was in no mood to entertain anything superfluous or anything but total acceptance of its principles. It genuinely believed it was bringing the "right" economic system to Eastern Europe and dissent was dangerous to its vision of bringing peace where they had been such violence. In short, having defeated the Nazis, it was not going to allow similar visions to flourish under its watch. The risks were too high, the loss of life already too much.

Have you ever been on a bus with a group of teenagers and young adults? They are almost always the ones least willing to be courteous, the ones too young to understand or care about history. To the Soviet Union, whose sacrifices and discipline won the most vicious war in modern history, the youth's carelessness wasn't a product of hormones but of idleness. The cure would be physical work and hard labor to build up the wayward youths' character and deliver an appreciation of the Soviet way. As anyone who has worked with older children and teenagers understands, iron-fisted methods never work; indeed, they always backfire. 


Thus, the Soviet Union's response--allowing a system of anonymous informants, creating labor camps, allowing the Hungarian secret police to arrest some of Hungary's best and brightest, and rewarding entities that sought to mimic the Soviet Union's methods exactly--led much, if not most, of its avant-garde talent to leave--many of them to America. 
From the House of Terror. Is Charles Schwab in America because of the Soviets?

The Soviets' economic system didn't need entrepreneurs or artists anyway. Its block-like buildings and morose subways are designed to be utilitarian and long-lasting, not beautiful. Engineers and scientists were prioritized, not art or music or other silly notions of youth. Before you unfurl your American flag, note that the United States wasn't exactly enamored with its own youth around the same time period. Even today, the U.S. incarcerates the most children in the developed world: the "United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, with over 60,000 children in such facilities in 2011... The US also sends an extraordinary number of children to adult jails and prisons—more than 95,000 in 2011." Adults everywhere dislike forces of change, which usually come from younger generations--at least when they're not saddled with student loans and debt. 

In any case, the Soviet Union's efforts to enforce ideological conformity eventually backfired, leading to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956
As in Panama against the United States' occupation of its land, the students led the charge--but were crushed. 
Anti-American mural seen in popular Panama City street (2017)
At Panama City's largest university cafeteria (2017) 

Whereas President Carter chose the moral path of non-occupation and immediately began negotiating a fair treaty with the Panamanian government after the deaths of Panamanian student protestors, the Soviets doubled down. They sent more troops into Budapest and surrounded the capital. The liberator had become the oppressor. 

I don't claim to know much about European history, but I've visited a museum or two, and here's the best map I've seen that explains Europe. 
Hungarian National Museum
Basically, it's everyone against their neighbors to the left, right, north, and south. Until WWII, political mobs across Europe competed for power, usually with disastrous consequences, until the biggest mob of all, the Soviet Union, came to power and finally brought peace. Unfortunately, this peace came at a cost: total obedience to the Soviet way of life, especially its economic system. (Being in Eastern Europe makes one appreciate inequality as a necessary ingredient of difference, but of course not so much as to create a similar concentration of power as the Soviet system.) 


What about Budapest now? The capital city is the combination of three different areas: Buda, Obuda, and Pest (pronounced "pesh"). If you visit, you will choose between staying on the Buda or Pest sides, separated by bridges over the long Danube River. I prefer the Pest side, which has the energy, the synagogues, and the older buildings. The Buda side is more developed and resembles any other semi-modern European city outside of Buda Castle and Fisherman's Bastion. See the Andrassy and Ullio streets. Visit Cafe Frei on Vaci street. See a movie at Toldi Cinema--I recommend Nimrod Antal's The Whiskey Robber (with English subtitles). Definitely visit the Museum of Terror, similar to one of my favorite museums, Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie Museum

Hungary's history cannot be forgotten, but Budapest seems to be trying to turn a new leaf very, very cautiously. For now, it is unclear which direction Hungarians will take. I do not sense the weirdness of the Czechs, the banality of the Austrians, or the energy of the Germans. I only sense a preference for being left alone, as if the Hungarian secret police is still listening somewhere. It wouldn't surprise me if, like their great cat statues, Hungarians remain inscrutable. 

Bonus: I saw this passage in one of Hungarian Maria Schmidt's books and don't know what to make of it. 
Hungary as "court jester"?

Rakosi--born Mátyás Rosenfeld--was a Jewish Stalinist and a Soviet puppet leader who later repudiated organized religion. He was the Communist Party's leader in Hungary from 1945 to 1956 and features prominently in Soviet propaganda. When younger or more idealist Hungarian Communists became more popular--like Laszlo Rajk or Imre Nagy--they were set up and/or executed. In Rajk's case, he was unjustly framed for collaborating with capitalists and foreign powers. Rakosi died of natural causes. 

No comments: