Eastern Europe’s Monument Dilemma

Heroes’ Square, which honors Hungary’s early founders and important leaders.

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.

Artur

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 FELSZABADÍTÓ
SZOVJET H?SÖK
EMLÉKÉRE
A HÁLÁS MAGYAR NÉP
1945

This translates, “To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes [erected by] the grateful Hungarian people [in] 1945”.

After the 1989 transition from communist rule to democracy, the inscription was modified to read:

MINDAZOK EMLÉKÉRE

AKIK
ÉLETÜKET ÁLDOZTÁK
MAGYARORSZÁG
FÜGGETLENSÉGÉÉRT,
SZABADSÁGÁÉRT
ÉS BOLDOGULÁSÁÉRT

Translated it says: “To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary”

Vict

The Liberty monument, located at the highest point in Budapest, 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.

World War I Monument in Vildin, with Bulgarian soldiers on the right and Germans on the left.

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.

Communist Monument in Vildin, Bulgaria.

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.

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7 Responses to Eastern Europe’s Monument Dilemma

  1. John Pryor says:

    Each of the monuments are seen and evaluated in the current age’s context. As historical memories to a bygone time they often lose the potency that more recent monuments retain as symbolic and divisive works of propaganda. A monument to the autocrat Louis XIV is much less impactful than one erected to Pol Pot (not to see them as moral equivalents)! In any case we must be careful not to throw the baby and the bathwater out, and destroy all historical memory save that which we today agree with. A better solution is to place alternative interpretations of the time period in close physical proximity to encourage mature discussion.

    • Bert Dunkerly says:

      Good points, John. I agree. I should have emphasized that the Cold War and World War era monuments are a relatively recent phenomenon… there are still people living who were impacted by these events. Whereas with the Civil War it is much more distant. And interesting enough, there is an element in many of those countries that looks back fondly on the Communist years.

  2. Joe Lafleur says:

    A statue does not equate to “all historical memory save that which we today agree with.” If you looked up the history of a missing statue, you may learn far more than just staring @ one that exists. You may learn even more if the statue is placed in a museum and interpreted daily fora its historical context. A statue or monument is created from a history. The history was there before the statue or monument and will always be there with or without the monument or statue that derived from it. The fact a monument was removed may actually draw more attention to the history behind it.

  3. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Perceptive commentary, Bert. I noticed much of the same when in Hungary and Poland in 2014. I visited the same places, and found it interesting. India has also gone through some of the same discussions about the British Raj monuments – some cities moving them, while others (like Calcutta and the Queen Victoria statue) keeping them in place.

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  5. John Moreno says:

    The problem often becomes what to do with the statue if the decision is to remove it. On C-Span, the Director of the Civil War Museum in New Orleans said that most museums will NOT accept statues. They do not have the space nor the budget for maintenance. So relocating them becomes problamatic. Personally, I favor replacing the current plaque with a more historically accurate plaque. If the plaque says something like “to commemorate the soldiers of the South who defended their homeland” then fine. But if from the 1890s the plaque is more like “to commemorate the soldiers of the South who opposed the Invaders from the North and defended the Supremacy of the White South” (and some plaques read like that) then replace the plaque with something more based in historical fact. Too much American history gets bulldozed over for real estate development. A statue of a Confederate Soldier is not so inappropriate if accompanied by facts and historical context and not the Lost Cause White Supremacy of the 1870s-1950s. It would be similar to not mentioning the Revolutionary War Loyalists because they did not support the American Revolution and were kicked out of the American Colonies to Canada. Like it or not, they were here and part of our history.

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