How the Siege of Budapest has been remembered
Remembrance of the Siege of Budapest was dictated by the state party until 1990. I myself can still remember well those times when Young Pioneers had to recite the story of the good-natured Soviet soldiers who distributed food and rescued young women. The regime, which by then was in the process of liberalisation, permitted a public talk by the Bern-based historian Peter Gosztonyi in 1986 contesting the “liberation theory” but such events were the exception.
Soviet soldiers accompanying Hungarian captives in Budapest.
Liberation talk slow to change…
The Hungarian population, however, had a significantly more nuanced picture of events at the end of the war than Hungarian historio-graphy. In addition to the mass atrocities committed by the Soviet military, the palpable change of the political system began right from the time of the advance of the Red Army. Although historiography endeavoured for a long time to record the history of Stalinisation as starting in 1948, contemporaries knew better.
Strangely the collapse of the communist system in 1989 for many years did not bring changes to the liturgy of public remembrance. All the parties continued to celebrate the day of “liberation”, albeit with different emphases. That was not changed by the fact that the crimes of the Red Army and the Bolshevisation of the country were increasingly being addressed.
Even in 1995 it caused something of a scandal when the theory of the “liberation” was disputed in a television talk show. No lesser a figure than the Oscar-winning director István Szabó expressed open outrage.
A few years later, however, rejection of the liberation thesis caused less of a stir. That change was undoubtedly linked to the loss of dominance in interpreting events of the left-liberal layers of society. When my work on the Siege of Budapest was published in 1998 the book was positively received in the press across the political spectrum, from the left-liberal daily Népszava to the far-right weekly Demokrata.
By 1997 a new, far-right interpretation of the events emerged, which, however, received little attention. The Hungarian National Front organised the “Day of Honour”, attended by a few dozen people. In its interpretation the German breakout was a “heroic act” under the SS motto “My honour is loyalty”. The attendees assembled on Kapisztrán tér, erected a wooden cross adorned with a German steel helmet and laid a wreath.
The choice of location was symbolic: János Kapisztrán was canonised in 1456 for his deeds at the battle at Nándorfehérvár (today Belgrade) in 1456. That he was also a notorious persecutor of Jews and inquisitor and he can be held accountable for several hundred deaths may have been a coincidental bonus. In any case Kapisztrán embodies the fighters of the European West against advancing hordes from Asia, which predestined him to become a figure of remembrance.
This theory is supported by the fact that notable military actions did not take place on Kapisztrán tér in 1944/45 unlike several other locations in the Castle District, which would therefore lend themselves more readily to a commemoration event.
Fights end commemorations for 4 years
The wreath-laying ceremony of the neo-Nazis first caught the attention of the public in 1999 when a fight broke out afterwards in the Viking Club between police and skinheads. Several of the attendees were given prison sentences. After that no commemoration was held on Kapisztrán tér until 2003. However, the “Day of Honour” was marked by various Hungarian and foreign far-right organisations each year at different locations.
The political parties remained incapable of tackling the topic. The Socialists continued to remember in the anti-fascist tradition while the conservative Fidesz kept a low profile. Voters further to the right of the spectrum were targeted by Demokrata, which used the headline “They were Europe’s heroes” on the 60th anniversary of the breakout. Demokrata understood by that the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS and the Hungarian Army.
The publication made no mention of the persecution of Jews during the siege. The author saw the purpose of the resistance solely as the defence of the European West against the advancing Bolshevists. The lack of a more nuanced approach evidently did not worry the weekly.
Memorials build up on a song
Since around the turn of the millennium, however, there has been another type of remembrance. The first step was taken by singer-songwriters Tamás Cseh and Géza Bereményi in 1997 with their song Széna tér, a successful artistic attempt to mourn the victims of the losing side. It is worth noting in this context that there is still no central memorial in Budapest for the fallen Hungarian soldiers and for the tens of thousands of civilians who were hauled off.
In 1995, on the 60th anniversary of the breakout, a memorial plaque was mounted on the side of the church on Kapisztrán tér, where a commemoration has since been held annually around the date of 11 February. The organisers are District I of Budapest and the neighbouring Museum of Military History on behalf of the Hungarian defence force.
Neo-Nazis lose platform
The mayor of District I has generally taken the time to honour the event with a short speech. The guests include veterans of the battles and representatives of veteran associations. Neo-Nazis steer clear of this worthy event because it cannot serve as a projection screen for their view of history and their way of remembering.
The impossibility of identifying with the official memorial events, however, gave rise to an additional alternative form of remembrance. The sites of remembrance shifted from the urban area to the forests around Buda. This change is indicated by the increasingly well-tended graves of soldiers and the construction of fictitious remains of military positions in the surroundings of the gliding airfield at Pesthidegkút.
There are also various remembrance tours. The best-known is the “Breakout Hiking Tour”, held since 2005, over a distance of 25, 35 or 60 kilometres. Information about the tour can be found at kitorestura.hu (in Hungarian and German):
Description of the “Breakout” tour from its website:
The aim of the “Breakout” remembrance tour is to pay our respects each February to the Hungarian and German soldiers who heroically defended Budapest, and thereby the whole of Western Europe, against the Bolshevist Red Army in the Second World War for two and a half months.
After the Soviet ring of besieging forces was closed in winter 1944, the defenders of “Fortress Europe”, true to their oath, chose to break out on 11 February 1945 instead of capitulating, which would have resulted in a massacre without a struggle…
The “Breakout Hiking Tour” is both a sporting event and a memorial event. It has no political objective. One way in which the historical background manifests itself to participants is that the various checkpoints are manned by activists in uniforms of the time. The symbols on the uniforms and the stamps, which are banned under current law, are used solely in a historical context and in the interests of authenticity.
The “weapons” used by the preservers of tradition are solely deactivated firearms for decorative purposes or models for which no permit is required. The legal regulations in effect are fully observed by the organisers and the participants at the checkpoints.
If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…
This description is problematic for reasons including the claim of having no political objective, while the text itself certainly politicises. It is mentioned that the Red Army was “Bolshevist” while no reference to political ideology is made in the case of the German troops. In addition, it is historically incorrect to claim that surrendering would have “resulted in a massacre without a struggle”.
The odds of surviving under an orderly capitulation were still greatest despite the frequent killing of prisoners, while the breakout degenerated into what was virtually a “massacre without a struggle” of the exhausted soldiers. The estimated discrepancy between the losses of the Red Army and of the Wehrmacht of 1:25 cannot be explained otherwise.
Such inconsistencies, however, are hardly surprising. Everything points to the fact that the breakout is remembered in a political vacuum, which naturally encourages many amateurs. This need not have been the case: for years a civil initiative founded by Jewish survivors has been calling for a memorial to General Schmidhuber, who protected the ghetto from a pogrom in January 1945. The German general both prevented a mass murder and himself fell on Széna tér during the breakout under wretched circumstances.
Those of both left-wing and right-wing persuasions could lay a wreath at a memorial to him with a clear conscience. That the relevant authorities have not taken any action in this respect makes one suspect that they are not actually interested in such consensus.