We should perhaps begin with a visit to the Museum of Terror. Think about it this way: you are inside the building which few could access freely, and even fewer were able to leave at will during its time of operation. The interior retains its grim appearance. You climb an inner cascade of stairs, just as some thousands of bureaucrats, interrogators, informers, and prisoners had done it before the place ceased to be the headquarters of the Hungarian State Protection Authority (ÁVH). You are not invited to think which role you would have favored if these were your only choices. The first room you enter is like a tunnel split in half: communism on one side of the divide, fascism on the other, as if these two were just some abstract concepts, like two sides of a coin, had equal value, or were equally disastrous. But that’s just for starters because your guide in this museum is an unreliable narrator.
And the unreliable narrator’s task is to convince you that fascism was an episode, as accidental as it was inconsequential. It is the matter of sheer proportions. If Hungarian fascism could be contained in only one room, and if it was just a matter of mimicry, of Arrow-Cross uniforms mimicking SS uniforms, and if it was just the matter of imitating some rituals (like, dining at a long table, eating from a set of plates stylishly adorned with a V for Victory pattern) then, well, the whole conundrum could be excused as one more copycat situation that the world knows plenty of. This notion that some Nazi followers simply popped up in Hungary, the way they would in other places around the world comes probably from the fact that the Arrow-Cross episode in the House of Terror doesn’t offer us even a hint on the origins of the Arrow-Cross. How did this movement led by Ferenc Szálasi manage to become so well rooted, so popular, and forceful enough to stay in power from 15 October 1944 to 28 March 1945? With the word “Jews” scarcely mentioned and the word “antisemitism” banished, fascism and communism become indeed mere concepts; the latter lasting longer and so (based on the unreliable narrator’s logic) producing more suffering. In the concluding lagune of the hallway, where the victims of terror are commemorated as tiny lanterns, one round torch (in the back and to the left) is shaped like the Star of David–perhaps to appease Jewish visitors, were they inclined to complain. If you want to learn more about the origins and the extend of the ravages produced not by external conquerers but by Hungarians and inflicted on Hungarians, you’d have to visit the Dohany Street Synagogue or to read Zoltán Gábor’s Orgia (but only if you feel you must know all the gory details).
However, it suffice to visit the Holocaust Memorial (teachers – free tickets!) to learn about some twenty or so years of consistently negative publicity and something we would today call trolling (we are talking only about the interwar period: Hungary slighted during the parcelling out of the land following the unfavorable resolution of WWI, the democratic revolution of November 1918, followed by the communist revolution of March 1919 – the “red terror” followed by the “white terror”) to learn about all the ridicule and derision that was like never-fading voices of the haters, creating background for the Hungarian bureaucracy to follow increasingly more unjust and dehumanizing orders. Without reaching to pre-WWI times, let us assume that the political movement began with the posters meant to awaken Hungary. And I can just imagine how the cultured, educated Hungarian Jews who prayed in neolog synagogues designed like churches (with the pulpit and altar up front, and organs up above), if ever, and who funded art magazines, spoke only Hungarian, and had often been WWI veterans, were repeteadly told to not to pay heed because the haters were just a fringe movement.
The first posters contained a lot of text. But the haters soon discovered that simple images, perceived at a glance and able to lodge in the brain forever, were much more effective. It must have seem appealing to the readers who swore never to buy Jewish papers to imagine that they were, in fact, keeping their minds pure, protecting them from manipulation.
Apparently, by 1936 the Arrow-Cross movement imagined itself powerful enough to entice the Hungarian Jews to emigrate. But not to Palestine. To Madagascar (this must have been a unifying idea, because we remember Zuzanna Ginczanka, appearing at one of the Warsaw literary balls with a suitcase that read “Madagascar”). It was her playfull parody topping the earlier and pervasive one.
And finally, in a strategy that sounds rather familiar today, the persecuted victim gets to be presented a perpetrator. The subliminal message reads: “Don’t be misguided by this discheveled creature’s cries of help! Take a closer look, he is really a weapon, he is strangling me!” Just like the migrants at the Polish-Belarusian borders are “weapons” and not actual dispossessed people.
We should notice the shapely, well-proportioned body of an Aryan “tortured” by a deceitful figure of a Jew, is brazen enough to shout for help while abusing this shapely young man in his power. In the meantime, the racial laws passed between 1938 and 1941, modeled on Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, reversed the equal citizenship status granted to Jews in Hungary in 1867. These first anti-Semitic laws were passed not in fear of the Nazi army, but under the pressure from the Hungarian extreme right. The anti-Jewish measures were primarily monetary decisions: by desinfranchising Hungarian Jews, who were among the most successful in Europe, the state was going to be able to pay for the extension of the pension scheme and the expansion of the national health insurence, and probably other perks, with the Jewish assets that consitituted up to 25% of national wealth. The task was then to design laws that would allow this wealth to be passed into Gentile hands. And perhaps also to outflank the Nazis, who would have gladly used the same wealth for their multifarious war enterprises. These legal measures continued to succeed one until, in 1944, they culminated in a series of searches for the allegedly concealed “aryanized property,” until any object owned by a Jewish person, such as a spinning wheel, could be appropriated under the guise of collecting of “national property.” Of course this had been nothing but a “lawful” robbery of hapless victims before they were shipped to Auschwitz.
By not only eliminating but “lawfully” robbing the “competition” it was possible to finance the beautiful furry hubcaps adorned with feathers, the various capes and uniforms of politicians, and the table service decorated with laurel leaves, and the lavish lifestyle in Parliament. One wonders if the Arrow-Cross (in terms of design, solely) was really just an imitation of swastica, or was it rooted in some kind of local symbolism. When two days later I visit the Museum of Agriculture, I’m finding there, prominently desplayed, a small sculpture of the “Ancient Hungarian Hunter,” dated 1944, coincidentally, and because of that bringing to mind similar renditions produced for the benefit of the Arian race in Germany.
But the sculpture is by a respectable Hungarian artist, Maugsch Guyla, and no annotation linking, supporting, or refuting this temporal coincidence appears. So I take the trip to the museum tower, where we are led by the guide with a metal cross over some oval amulet high up his throat. He leads us up the stairs through a narrow passageway encrusted with staffed hawks and bare-bone animal heads until it felt like we were streaming right into an unpublished chapter of some ecological version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as if some voice was about to persuasively whisper “The horror! The horror!”
by Izabela Morska
(written during the Visegrad Fellowship at the Petőfi Literary Museum in Budapest)