The House of Terror at Ten – Director Mária Schmidt in conversation with Nick Thorpe

NTLet’s start at the very beginning. You opened ten years ago, amidst great controversy: about the establishment of your museum, about its name, about the rather dramatic outward appearance, and about the combination in one place of both Communism and Fascism. Have you won those arguments?

: I think we won them all! We were attacked mainly because we tried to put an end to the left-wing narrative of the twentieth century, and of the totalitarian past of Hungary. We compared the Hungarian Nazi Party and its role in 1944 with the Communist period which followed it from 1945, and that was not what the Marxists had taught us about the history of the twentieth century. We won the argument, because nowadays in Hungary, I don’t think anybody would say that the two totalitarian regimes cannot be compared. Our argument ran that there was a continuity in the terror that was used against Hungarian people in order to legitimize these regimes, and this argument has been validated.

NTWhen you say “to put an end to the left-wing narrative”, does that mean you wanted to construct your own narrative – a right-wing one? How would you define the narrative approach of the House of Terror?

MS: It is important that we now approach the twentieth century from the perspective of the twenty-first. It is hard to tell someone who is twenty years old today, that in the middle of the last century there were people living in the same streets, in the same city, who experienced first the Nazi terror, then a few weeks later the Communist terror, but you cannot compare them. Sometimes even the people who perpetrated the terror were the same, just wearing different uniforms. From the perspective of the twenty-first century you have to see this whole twentieth century with fresh eyes. And that is what we try to do. We wanted to make a museum dedicated to the youth of Hungary. To teach them how important it is to have freedom and independence, and how difficult it was to achieve, how many people suffered and gave their lives for freedom. Because they did not want to live as slaves in an occupied country.

NTDo you, does the museum, see Fascism today as a dead ideology, or as a living ideology?

MS: I think the whole term “Fascism” is used in a very unhistorical form. That was Nazism, which means “National Socialism”, which is a combination of two important ideologies of the twentieth century, nationalism and socialism. That combination was a very attractive one, which is why they could achieve such a huge victory in Germany in the mid-thirties – and also in Russia. If you compare the Soviet style of Socialism with the Nazi style of Socialism, you find there is much more in common, than if you compare Italy to the Bolshevik regime or Italy to Nazi Germany. National Socialism and International Socialism are closely connected.

To answer your question, National Socialism in the way in which it was practiced in Nazi Germany is a dead ideology. Anti-Semitism could not be so attractive to people any more. There are other challenges in the twenty-first century. History does not repeat itself in an identical way. Nonetheless, some parts of national identity are of course very much alive, and some parts of socialist thinking are still alive. But not in the way in which these were practiced in Nazi Germany in the period between 1933 and 1945.

NT: Present Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in 2003, a year after this museum was established, that from “a symbol of our living pain”, he had come to see the House of Terror as “a symbol of our living conscience”. What did he mean by that? And do you agree with him?

MS: Both are very important. In 2002 he gave a speech at the opening of the museum, in which he said the past is not with us any more, we put it into the museum and closed it down there – the past is no longer part of our future. One of the big questions we have had to face is how to deal with the victimizers, how to deal with the victims, what we could do for justice after the fall of the Communist regime. What we did was to establish this museum and put up on the wall photographs of some of the victimizers. This was necessary because there was no legal possibility to put them on trial. That was because the former President of Hungary, László Sólyom (2005–2010), had opposed this when he was head of the Constitutional Court in the early nineties. He argued that the continuity of the justice system is much more important than historical justice. I think that is nonsense, because a judicial system is also part of the regime. Each regime – in Nazi Germany, in the Soviet Union, in Communist Hungary – set up its own judicial system. The Jews were deported under the given laws, codified in Nuremberg. So what kind of continuity of the judicial system is that? If the continuity of a judicial system goes against justice, we should not preserve it. In the absence of that legal possibility, we did what we did here at the House of Terror. More than twenty years have passed, and these questions remain unsolved. It is always very difficult to come to terms with the past. Because it was part of us, with all the routines that went with it, all the questions and all the lessons.

NTDoes the museum have a political message today, given that the Hungarian Socialist Party is the legal successor to the Hungarian Socialist Workers (Communist) Party? Is this an anti-Socialist museum?

MS: No, I don’t think so. I think the Socialists who are now party-members, and the leaders of this party are another generation. I don’t believe in collective guilt. Collective guilt was a very important part of the totalitarian regimes. I’m a Christian. I think everyone is responsible for their own deeds, and not for those of the previous party or collective. I think those Socialists also played a positive role in ending the Communist regime. I am very grateful to them that they did not begin to fight and provoke a civil war in Hungary. That was an important decision, that they gave a free chance for a peaceful transition and a peaceful revolution. Because it was a revolution, a peaceful revolution. We changed the whole country, the institutions and the regime. I’m grateful to them because they were in a position to use force, and they did not. This is true even though they knew they would not get any support from Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.

NT: After the House of Terror was established, the Holocaust Memorial Museum was established in Páva Street. Is the Holocaust museum a rival or a complementary museum to your own?

MS: The decision was made at the same time, both for a House of Terror, dedicated to the history of this particular building, Andrássy út 60 [60 Andrássy Avenue], where both totalitarian regimes had their centres of terror, and also for the other tragedy of the Hungarian past, the Holocaust. Our Museum was attacked because we were established even before the Holocaust Museum – there were a lot of delays. But since they opened, the criticism directed against us proved baseless – there is now another place where people can go and learn about those parts of history. It is important that the Holocaust Museum was established, that schoolchildren and students can go there and learn about that part of Hungarian history.

NT: Did it influence the way that you handle the Holocaust within this museum? Your museum has been criticised for focussing very much on the Arrow Cross period in Hungary from October 1944, while the vast majority of Hungarian Jews were deported to death camps earlier, albeit under Nazi occupation, from March 1944.

MS: We did not want to deal with that part of history, because from the beginning that was the task of the Holocaust Museum. It would not have been a friendly gesture from us, to tell that story as well. In such a case, they might have been criticised for repeating the same story that we tell. So I think it was a collegial gesture from our side, that we left this task for them to do.

NT: Are you out to demonise Communism? Some people say you only take its worst examples?

 We should not demonise Communism – it was demonic enough! A lot of Western intellectuals – especially in England – are rather protective of the Communist regimes – which is ironic when one remembers that there was never an important Communist party in the UK. The same people also tend to play down the demonic side of Communist history, with the argument that Communist aims were noble, but broke down in the practice. That is rather upsetting for us. Perhaps if those Western countries had had to endure sixty or seventy years of such an experiment, I would be more willing to find excuses for them. But that was our life, and the lives of our parents and grandparents, and living in a totalitarian dictatorship is not funny. It put a very heavy burden on the dignity of the people. To do what they forced you to do. Not to be able to talk and think freely. To be put on trial and sent to prison just for a joke, or because somebody wanted to get your apartment. Imagine this in a nice London suburb! That is why we are so unhappy when Western intellectuals burden us with double standards. Nor could I ever understand how Western intellectuals and politicians who suffered a lot during the Nazi occupation could be so rigid. Maybe because they defended the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe for so long, and were not sufficiently critical of them. Maybe they have to deal with their own conscience regarding their feelings and thoughts in the past.

NT: Let’s talk about the style and the approach of the museum. It is rather interactive, there’s a lot of sound, of colour, of light, and a lot of film. The museum is actually a piece of theatre, is it not? How difficult has it been for you to remain close to the historical truth?

MS: It has not been difficult, because we were very much aware of the fact that we were making a museum for the children of the twenty-first century. They are bombarded every day with very heavy visual language, from the television, on the street – from all sides. We wanted to make an impression on them, move them, and so we decided to use their language, the language they understand. And the internet and virtual reality allow us to go as deep as we would like to go, because there is no limit in the virtual sphere. So we have put every document, and all the data we have on touch screens, so if they feel they are not getting enough in the rooms, they can either take a piece of paper where the story of the room is written down, or go to a touch screen and get films, texts, documents, photos – and peruse those for hours and hours.

NT: Is there a lower age limit for visitors?

MS: I hope that parents are ready to decide what they would like their children to see. I would not let my grandchildren under 12 years into the museum. I usually recommend that 7th and 8th grade (14–15 year olds) classes in elementary school should come. That would be the perfect time to begin, and then of course the secondary schools.

NT: What are your plans for the next ten years? What stories still need to be told, or which parts of the old stories?

MS: We would like to renew our museum, if we get money from the government. We would also like to extend the museum a bit, to have a bigger room for temporary exhibitions. At the time we made the plans for the museum we thought we might have 100–150 visitors a day. I am happy to say that we now have around 1,000 or more people every day. The service rooms on the ground floor are very small and were not made to accommodate so many people. We would also like to renew the museum, because this is normal practice every seven years, and ten years have already passed. A lot of displays are rather old in interactive media terms – they don’t have such a long lifetime. So that is basically what we would like to do – to use more modern methods.

NT: This year is the centenary of the birth of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jewish lives in Budapest – how is the museum marking that?

MS: I think I was one of the first persons in Communist Hungary to write in a weekly on Wallenberg in 1987. We also had an exhibition about him in 2004, and there is another inside the museum today – on the 3rd floor. He is rather a symbolic figure for me, because as a young, rich Swedish man he came to Hungary in these dark days of summer 1944, to help Hungarian Jews escape from the hands of the Nazis. He dedicated his life for this unfortunate people whom the Nazis wanted to destroy, by giving them Swedish protection, Swedish passports and so on. Most importantly, he gave them back hope. And if people have hope they can begin to fight. If they fight, they have a chance to survive. That’s why he was so important. His tragic fate also mirrors that of Hungary. That although he escaped from the hands of the Nazis he could not escape the hands of the Soviets. The accounts of his death and disappearance in the Soviet Union have been deeply contradictory. Another thing is that Sweden also did not put enough pressure on the Soviet Union to get Wallenberg back, or to get information on him.

NT: Do you think we will ever know what happened to him, after he was taken away by Russian soldiers in January 1945?

 Maybe. From my own experience as a historian, I can say that you never find the most important documents in the files you are looking for, but in other files! This is because the people tasked with removing documents from various files, never go to every attached file, or all the related files. And maybe there you can find something, if you dig deep enough. People have never been able to destroy all the documents. There is always a second part, or a second copy.

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