Best Day in Budapest: Walking into History
(This was part of a four-day excursion in Budapest as part of a five-week trip in the summer of 2015. Contact me for more info on exploring Budapest as there is a lot to experience here.)
I awoke to a beautiful sunrise and walked out the door at 5:30am right into history. You notice so many things early in the morning when it’s quiet. Elderly women walking their dogs. Bakeries opening. Sunlight reflecting on the palace. Morning clouds that soon disappear if you don’t capture them right at that moment.
Budapest has had both a despicable and heroic recent past. They allied themselves with Nazi Germany in WWII and even invaded Soviet Russia.
In order to win favor with the Nazis, they cooperated willingly with a small unit of SS to organize the ruthless collection and deportation of almost 800,000 Jews across Hungary. Even the Nazis were surprised at their zeal in segregating, robbing, and executing the largest deportation of Jews in the history of the holocaust. 600,000 Hungarian Jews were ultimately exterminated, mainly in Auschwitz where Casey and I visited this past winter.
On the streets of Budapest, Jews were taken from their homes and marched down to the Danube. They were forced to face the river and take off their shoes. Then they were shot in the back so they fell into the river. No need to be buried or burned. This was done by Hungarian fascists, not Nazis. Today, there is a simple but highly moving memorial to the Jews by the river. A sculptor created 60 pairs of iron shoes fastened to the pavement by the river.
By 6am, I had walked down the castle hill and found myself alone at the Shoe Memorial for fifteen minutes. Peaceful. It allowed me to juxtapose the horror with the beauty of the sun casting reflections of churches in the river.
I almost made the mistake of asking how many Jews are still in Budapest, but remembered that in Europe, they do not take a census. No Jews ever want to be counted again. Europe remains pretty anti-Semitic overall.
Back to 1945. Germany is clearly losing the war. Italy changes sides. Hitter hears plans of Hungary betraying him. So he sends Nazi forces to occupy Budapest. He has an ulterior motive. He knows the Russians are heading quickly west so he wants to bog them down in Budapest. Essentially, he sacrificed young German men in Budapest to buy time.
I had walked down the castle hill through the Vienna gate where the Austrians had fought the Turks centuries before. And where some of the worst street by street fighting of WWII occurred. You can still see bullet holes in buildings throughout Budapest.
They never evacuated the citizens during this fighting. As a result, 40,000 Hungarian citizens died of starvation or in the fighting. And as the Russians defeated the Nazis, they remembered that the Hungarians had invaded their homeland. They indiscriminately raped between a third and half of all women in Budapest during this time.
So after WWII, Stalin and then Khrushchev set up a puppet government and ruled over Hungary as a communist state as in other Eastern European countries.
Here’s where the next exciting part of my day came. I had read a book about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I like revolutions against bad authority and it was inspiring. So I began to retrace the actual events of that October 1956 Revolution. To read about it is one thing. To walk where it happened is cool.
I found this unassuming statue in Josef Bem park where the revolution began. 200,000 students gathered here in 1956. Ironically, they stood in front of a Polish leader who had helped them fight the Austrians in 1848.
From here, they walked across the Danube to the Parliament Building, the largest in Europe. It is a stunningly beautiful building.
Outside this building, they assembled in a park and read their famous 16 Points, which largely mirrored our Bill of Rights, demanding freedom of press, religion, and conscience. They wanted self-government.
At that time, you could be imprisoned or sent to labor camps for speaking against the government. Each apartment building had informants who told on their neighbors for suspected anti-communist beliefs. It was stifling. (Definitely visit the House of Terror Museum when you visit Budapest).
As I started walking past this building, I saw a special sign with the numbers 1956 on it. They just created a temporary exhibit underground to commemorate the revolution. It’s so unassuming no one was even in there. I was giddy as only a history nerd can be! Here was a special memorial with videos, pictures, and eyewitness accounts of the revolution! And it was free. I entered and stood there with a feeling of intense gratitude.
On October 25, 1956, at this very spot, Soviet tanks in this square opened fire on Hungarian citizens who were peacefully demanding their freedom.
Women, children, students lay dead in the streets where I was walking.
But instead of squashing the revolution, it incited it. Here’s what was unique. These citizens and a few military leaders didn’t have great weapons or experience. For about a month, they actually beat the Soviet forces using guerrilla tactics until they withdrew from Budapest. There was jubilation. They took over the radio station. For a brief time, Hungarians could think and say whatever they wanted for the first time in a generation. I included this shot because we have never seen enemy tanks in our streets.
Khrushchev now had a big decision. Allow Hungarians autonomy and possibly see revolt spread through the other satellite states or crush the rebellion? The Hungarians pleaded with the Americans and western powers to lend support. But we were preoccupied with the Suez Canal crisis and didn’t want to irritate the Soviets.
So though we had encouraged their revolt, we let them down. After lying to the Hungarians repeatedly (who made the fatal mistake of wanting to believe they had good intentions), the Soviets ruthlessly crushed the rebellion, killing another 4,000. They ruled for another 35 years until the Soviet Union crumbled after the Berlin Wall fell.
So let’s keep walking through history. After passing through Parliament Square, I encountered a lonely figure, standing on a bridge (part of the sculpture) looking sadly back at the site of the 1956 massacre. This is Imre Nagy.
He missed a huge opportunity during the 1956 revolution. The Hungarians had actually forced Soviet troops to withdraw. Had Nagy led with boldness to fortify his military and prepare for a counter attack, he could have possibly begun rolling back the Iron Curtain then.
Instead he made the fatal mistake I’ve made before. He just couldn’t face the truth. Soviet Ambassador Yuri Andropov repeatedly lied to his face, reassuring him that the Soviets would honor Hungarian autonomy. Nagy so wanted to believe him that he refused to see all the warning signs around him. He sat paralyzed and three days later, the Soviets crushed the rebellion ruthlessly. And plunged the country into another 35 years of darkness. This is why the statue looks forlornly back at Parliament.
Fortunately for history, another man emerged who was a bold leader. A man who 30 years later faced that same Yuri Andropov, then leader of the USSR, and dared to call the Soviets the evil empire. I encountered that man confidently striding through Liberty Park in Budapest.
The man who against his advisor’s pleas stood in the shadow of the Berlin Wall and uttered the infamous words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” My childhood hero. Ronald Reagan. With the Parliament dome in the background after 25 tries (partly because the pigeon lady from Home Alone 2 kept talking to me about Ronald Reagan and stirring up pigeons). I especially like the statues in Budapest as they convey a sense of action or purpose.
Now here is where it gets controversial. Reagan is facing a disproportionately huge Soviet Memorial (that’s the way they did everything–the supremacy of the state. See Kiev Motherland Statue here.) dedicated to “liberating” Budapest from the Nazis in 1945.
Encountering these things forces you to think honestly and challenge preconceived ideas. Some perspective. Let’s give the Soviets credit. As much as we like our American hero stories, we did not defeat the Nazis. We played an instrumental role. But the Soviets delivered the ultimate death blow at Stalingrad. The Soviets suffered losses of 30 million soldiers and citizens as the Nazis raised villages. The French lost 200,000 while the British and Americans lost roughly 400,000 each. And that’s how and why the Soviets justified keeping control of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, etc. after the war.
BUT I have to say as an American there is no freaking way I would leave a memorial to the Soviets on my land. It even includes the Soviet hammer and sickle emblem.
Yes, the Soviets kicked the Nazis out of Budapest. We did the same thing in France, but we didn’t stay there and control them for the next 45 years. The Soviets took over Hungary, raped young and old girls, brutally destroyed 4,000 people in crushing the 1956 revolt, imprisoned political enemies, and destroyed their economy and spirit through 45 years of communism. I couldn’t fathom letting that stand.
So onward I walked and encountered even more controversy. Apparently the new nationalistic Hungarian government erected a monument in the middle of the night that shows the German/Nazi eagle swooping down to take the innocence of the Hungarians.
The controversy is that the intended meaning was that the Hungarians were the innocent victims of the Nazis. But it denies the facts that Hungary was the first country to join the Nazis and willingly deported its Jews. Opponents say they are whitewashing Hungarian culpability.
Only after an outcry did they add that it was a memorial to the victims of Nazi occupation. Across the street is a long row of memorials to people killed by the Nazis. There are protests every night at 5:30 so I may go just to see it on Sunday evening.
All this controversy even before 9am! I walked back to my hotel for breakfast, cleaned up and headed out again. I think I walked 12 miles in 97 degree heat with lots of breaks. I’ve seen almost everything I came to see. And more. Since it was Mom’s birthday, I had a piece of chocolate cake with apricot jam inside. It was horrible, of course.
Before bed, I walked down the hill along the river to see everything lit up.
I’m trying not to exaggerate here. But I think the Parliament Building lit up at night is the single most impressive building I’ve encountered in Europe. It’s massive. It’s gorgeous. It’s captivating. And you can’t capture it on camera.
P.S. I woke early the next day to take the 6am train from here to Germany, just hours before the train station was shut down by an influx of Syrian refugees. This was what greeted me at sunrise. Thanks for 27 days of adventure.
Love to all!