There are times when I joke with friends about the appeal of socialism. After visiting the House of Terror, a museum in Budapest dedicated to both the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary, it will be many moons before I do so again—at least not without the important caveat that the abuse of power under the banner of communism in Eastern Europe was a dark chapter not to be repeated.
When you walk into the House of Terror in Budapest you are met first by an enormous Soviet tank, then by a chilling black and white backdrop, featuring photos of victims.
This former house of torture and detention is an austere-looking museum, and is frequented by tourists like myself who get a glimpse of the grim realities of rule by both German and Hungarian Nazis, and Soviet totalitarianism.
The House of Terror sits at 60 Andrassy Place on a block of neo-classical buildings that was once the nerve centre of the short-lived and blood-thirsty Arrow Cross regime (1944-45), and later the headquarters for the Stalin-directed communist secret police organization, the Államvédelmi Hatóság.
In the basement of this popular museum formerly also known as the House of Loyalty, Hitler-inspired members of the Arrow Cross tortured and killed hundreds of people. At the commencement of Soviet occupation in 1945 one of the first tasks was to take over 60 Andrassy Blvd.
The “switching sides” room shows uniforms of the period worn by soldiers and officials forced to “turn,” and how an entire society was forced to become “turncoats” and switch alliances.
The literal turning in of one coat for another and later one’s comrade or family member to save one’s own life underscores the double occupation theme and the seamless transition when the communist Department for Political Police took over the Arrow Cross headquarters and later became the State security Office (AVO) and the State Security Authority (AVH).
Room 104 is simply titled Torture Chamber. Here tools of interrogation hang off cell walls. According to the information sheets provided, officials of the political terror organizations were feared by thousands and they in turn feared each other: “If ordered to do so, they killed without hesitation, or on the strength of confessionals extorted during brutal interrogations, they sent their victims to the gallows, to prisons, and labour camps. Many died. Those who survived the body-crushing and soul-debasing pain were ready to sign any document.”
The Room of Gabor Peter, Head of the Hungarian Political Police details this man’s role in the organizing of show-trials for political dissidents. Peter was responsible for cruelty, brutality, and political purges designed to remove any dissension, real or imagined. He was arrested for crimes against humanity in 1954.
The Anteroom of the Hungarian Political Police describes the specific actions of the communist party, whose informers consisted of a type of a “shadow army.” They spied on people in their work places, schools and churches with ideological and practical guidance for the Soviet occupiers.
Feeling drained, I walked through yet another narrow hallway flanked by stoic and sombre looking older folks, who for all I know witnessed these horrors first-hand. For these people this is more profound than a cautionary tale; it is a commemoration.
In the next room we are informed that the Hungarian peasantry looked forward to a brighter future after World War II. Thousands gained possession of land by way of the 1945 land redistribution effort. Yet, very quickly quotas earmarked for war reparations were tripled. Raids on the peasantry intensified. Farmers could be declared enemies of the State, face forced evacuations on trumped-up charges, confiscations, long prison terms, and executions. In the end, 400,000 peasants were convicted for “public supply crimes.”
For me the take away historical lesson was not to be trite when discussing or promoting the extreme left of the political spectrum.
The House of Terror displays the dirty laundry of two repressive regimes — two different forms of socialism gone very wrong. Whether due to defects in human nature or the manipulation of corrupt men, this building offered a disturbing and graphic reminder of a horrific period in European history that must never be repeated.
The totalitarian dictatorships might have used Marxist theory as a shield but they had little or nothing in common with those ideas.
So while some of us bang pots and pans against corporate capitalism, maybe it’s actually the creeping effects of totalitarianism that are to be feared, whether coming from the left or the right.
Ben Mahony is a singer/songwriter, concerned citizen, and reliable drinking buddy who calls Whitehorse home.