Monuments have been in the news a lot lately in our country, and while on a recent trip to Eastern Europe, I thought my thoughts would be far from our Civil War issues. Yet in visiting Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Hungary, I learned a bit about their issues with monuments from Communism, and found myself reflecting on our own issues.
In Hungary’s capital of Budapest, a landmark is Hero’s Square, a plaza with monuments and statues dedicated to Hungary’s early founders and defenders in 1900. While the historic statues and monuments from the late Nineteenth Century are interesting enough, Hero’s Square has had more recent, and controversial, history.
Following World War II, with the start of the Cold War, a statue of Joseph Stalin was installed here. The Stalin statue was destroyed in the 1956 Hungarian Rebellion, which was crushed by Soviet troops. Replacing the fallen statue, which was rescued by the Communist Hungarian government, was a large red block of marble, a new symbol of communism’s strength to stand at Hero’s Square. At the same time, throughout the nation during the Cold War many existing statues were removed, including one of Hungarian General Gorgey Artur. He led troops during the 1849 War of Independence.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, the Stalin statue was melted down and recast into a replacement of the one for Artur, based on photographs. And fittingly, he sits atop a section of the red marble that once sat in Heroes’ Square and was removed.
General Goregy Artur statue on Castle Hill. This statue was cast from a melted down Stalin statue, and replaces an earlier Artur monument. The red marble was reused from a Soviet era monument on Heroes’ Square.
Overlooking the city from its highest point is the Liberty monument. Built in 1947 to commemorate the Soviet liberation of Budapest from German control in World War II, the monument featured a woman with a palm leaf, with Soviet soldiers at the base. Inscribed were the words:
A HÁLÁS MAGYAR NÉP
This translates, “To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes [erected by] the grateful Hungarian people [in] 1945”.
Translated it says: “To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary”
The Liberty monument, dedicated to the Soviet liberation of Budapest in 1945, now stands with the Soviet soldiers having been removed, and the inscription altered.
Not all monuments were destroyed or altered. In fact, 42 statues from the Communist era have been removed from public places in Hungary, and relocated to Statue Park near Budapest. The architect on the project, István Schneller, stated: “This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”[
Zoltán Pokorni, Minister of Education from 1998-2001 noted, “I find it a promising plan to keep our historical memory alive and to strengthen citizens’ sense of responsibility and commitment to sustain democracy.”
Schneller also noted, “A chief merit of “One Sentence on Tyranny” – Park is the dignity with which it treats its theme: by refusing to sacrifice its historical significance to the ever-changing powers of daily politics… with its grand design concept and disturbed peacefulness it serves as an example for solving a controversial problem in an intelligent and elegant manner.”
Architect Ákos Ele?d said, “These statues are a part of the history of Hungary. Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyze it and think about it!”
The Liberty monument, like many of those in our country, offers conflicting interpretations. On one hand, it represents victory over the Nazis in World War II. Yet it was built in such a way as to promote Soviet Cold War ideology, and was part of the Soviet domination over this nation.
Prominently located along the Danube River in Vildin, Bulgaria is a communist-era monument. I saw other interesting monuments in my travels, many dealing with World War I. This conflict is seen much differently in the Balkans, where it was often part of a war for independence for various nations and ethnic groups. Vildin, Bulgaria has an unusual monument dedicated to World War I.
When I first approached the monument, I saw Bulgarian soldiers charging forward. Yet upon closer inspection I noticed German soldiers too. The two nations were allied during the Great War. For Bulgaria it was a chance to assert their independence, but they were on the losing side. Yet here, in the center of Vildin, stands a monument to Bulgaria’s role in the war, along with her German allies- a monument to a defeated cause and depicting German soldiers who assisted Bulgaria.
I saw other World War I monuments as well in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. These monuments often represented nations or ethnic groups whose boundaries shifted after the First and Second World Wars. Yet they remained, without being moved or altered.
There are obvious differences between the Cold War-era monuments and Civil War monuments. The Soviets were a foreign, occupying power, and were clearly imposing their view on the nations of Eastern Europe. Those countries yearned to be free of communist rule, and when the chance came, the symbols of oppression were removed or altered. But not all of them.
The explosive issue of race is not a factor in the Eastern European statues, as it is with Civil War monuments. The Cold War era monuments were placed by outsiders, or in some cases, a minority ruling group, unlike the Confederate monuments across the South which had widespread support from much (though not all) of the population.
Despite the differences between Eastern Europe’s monuments and those in our country, there are similarities. The citizens in these countries have to grapple with issues regarding the intentions of these monuments and how they fit into their historical memory today. Sometimes the answer has been to leave them alone, as in Vildin, Bulgaria, sometimes they have been altered, as with the Liberty Monument in Budapest, and some have been removed completely, to places like Statue Park.
I offer these thoughts not necessarily to promote or condone what has been done there, but simply to highlight another perspective. It is a good reminder that issues of monuments, commemoration, and historical memory are worldwide challenges.