Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: When monuments stand as salt in the wounds

Photograph from “The Cold War Builds in the 1950s”

While Nikita Khrushchev declared it was time for the de-Stalinization of Russia in what became known as his “secret speech” to Congress in 1956, the revolt against Soviet control in Hungary in October of the same year probably was not what he had in mind.

On October 23, with great exuberance and much difficulty due to its substantial size, defiant students and workers managed to topple their most hated symbol of Soviet domination – a statue of Josef Stalin. Only his boots remained standing.

Independence was short-lived. Less than a month.

As the western powers stood by, Russian tanks plowed into Budapest, brutally crushing the rebellion. Thousands lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands fled the country.

Hungary did not reemerge as a republic until more than three decades later, on October 23, 1989. The last remaining Soviet tanks and troops rolled out of Hungary on June 19, 1991.

Hungarians found themselves with major monuments espousing communist ideals in their midst. Rather than toppling them; Hungary elected to remove them to a more remote location outside of downtown Budapest.

A design competition was held, with the concept of architect Akos Eleod winning. Forty-two statues from the Soviet era, like a hall of fame for Communist heroes, are now displayed in the dignified setting of Memento Park.

The monument museum is regarded as an educational tool for generations with no memories of pre-democratic Hungary.

Memento Park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described and built up, this Park is about democracy. After all, only democracy can provide an opportunity to think freely about dictatorship.

Akos Eleod, architect of Memento Park

A replica of the fallen Stalin’s boots stands near the entrance of the park. Old black-and-white secret police training videos run continuously in one building.

A parked Trabant serves as a reminder of the lack of purchase choices and the scarcity of items during the Soviet rule. Hungarians able to save enough cash were offered one vehicle in one color, gray. The 26-horsepower Trabant, manufactured in East Germany, required half of its price as down payment with a delivery time of six to eight years. (So, how would a space-cadet such as myself ever find one’s gray Trabant among a street lined with parked gray Trabants?)

The move-all-the-statues-to-a-park solution in Budapest seems appropriate to ponder in light of issues in two different countries.

First, Poland:

Last month Poland updated its “de-communisation” legislation, banning “totalitarian” symbols, which would include Soviet propaganda monuments.

Now Russian foreign ministry officials have warned of “asymmetric measures” if Poland removes Soviet war monuments. Russia could refuse visas for Polish officials or downgrade trade relations….

The Red Army’s defeat of Nazi German forces on Polish soil in 1944-1945 remains a thorny issue in Russian-Polish relations. Many Poles viewed the Red Army as an occupation force, not as liberators, as the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact had carved up Poland between two dictatorships….

The (Russian foreign) ministry accused Poland of “Russophobia” and of “striving to belittle the USSR’s role as liberator.”

“Russia Warns Poland Not To Touch WW2 Memorials,” BBC News, July 31, 2017

And now in the United States with the issue of monuments to Confederate heroes. To many Americans these statues stand as symbols of an ongoing effort to whitewash over the painful period of slavery in this country. Recent clashes over monuments in Charlottesville resulted in tragedy.

In San Antonio, we are confronted with frightening images of heavily armed vigilantes, calling themselves the This is Texas Freedom Force, in our public parks and plazas to theoretically guard their leaders speaking against removal of a Confederate monument in Travis Park.

Senator Ted Cruz weighed in yesterday:

But I think that’s a decision each community needs to make as to how to appropriately acknowledge that history, how to commemorate that history, how to recognize that history.

Daily Post, Texas Monthly, August 18, 2017

How can the community freely debate when one side is threatening the other with arms?

Statuary issues also are surfacing in Austin, with several Confederate monuments, or as some refer to them as “monuments to states’ rights,” standing on Capitol grounds.

“The goal is to learn from history, all of our history, including events and times that many would like to forget,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a member of the State Preservation Board, whose duty is to preserve and maintain the Capitol complex. “Our goal should be to have a meaningful dialogue for future generations so those moments in our history are not repeated.”

“Confederate Icons Have Backing at State Capitol,” Allie Morris, San Antonio Express-News, August 18, 2017

The teaching moment is undermined by the prominent plaque bearing the words of “The Children of the Confederacy Creed:”

We therefore pledge ourselves… to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is that the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery)….

And, of course, Confederate Heroes Day remains an official state holiday in Texas, conveniently falling within less than a week as Martin Luther King Day.

As eagerly anticipated as the Academy Awards. Not.

Thanks so much, John Branch, http://comicskingdom.com/john-branch

Okay, the biannual roundup of what posts you read most during the past year is not exciting, but it always interests me.

As usual, he Alamo floats up near the top. While lots of you read my “Dear Mayor” post, it seemed to have little impact at City Hall despite its direct delivery to the inboxes of the 11. I actually was writing about the Alamo some yesterday, slipping Alamo politics into the historic fiction manuscript on which I am focusing. The passionate stands and debates about the Alamo and its plaza a century ago differ little from those of today.

You hold the King William neighborhood and Brackenridge Park dear as well. And am hoping some of our recent travels help serve as inspiration or guides for yours.

The numbers in parentheses represent the rankings from six months ago:

  1. Dear Mayor and City Council: Please don’t surrender Alamo Plaza, 2017
  2. The Madarasz Murder Mystery: Might Helen Haunt Brackenridge Park?, 2012 (2)
  3. What’s up top counts, 2017
  4. Brackenridge Park: ‘Is it still a postcard place?,’ 2017
  5. Postcards from San Antonio a Century Ago, 2016 (3)
  6. Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Wishing these dining spots were not 600 miles away, 2016 (12)
  7. How would you feel about the Alamo with a crewcut?, 2011 (6)
  8. Thanks to the Mister on his day for persistence in obtaining my Mother’s Day present, 2017
  9. Introducing Otto Koehler through a Prohibition politics caper of yesteryear, 2016 (11)
  10. Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Volunteering to eat at E’Cucina Leopardi everyday, 2016
  11. Please put this song on Tony’s pony and make it ride away, 2010 (4)
  12. Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: Sittin’ on Campeche Bay, 2017

Thanks for dropping by periodically. Love hearing your feedback.

Dear Mayor and City Council: Please don’t surrender Alamo Plaza

It’s hard to send a letter to you, because I don’t yet know who will be occupying those offices at City Hall. But, whoever you are, your first week in office, you will be pressured to approve a plan to wall off a major public plaza, the historical heart of so many of San Antonio’s cherished celebrations.

Please do not vote unconditionally to support the Reimagining the Alamo Master Plan in a rush to meet the budgetary cycle of the State Legislature.

There is much merit to parts of the proposal. The Alamo building itself is crumbling, and the plan targets its restoration and preservation. That is urgent.

The Phil Collins Collection is waiting for a home in San Antonio, and the State has acquired several historic structures on the westside of Alamo Plaza to display the valuable artifacts. (Adaptive reuse is wonderful, but please urge the State to reconsider gutting the entire interior of the landmark Crockett Block, designed by Alfred Giles.)

So the east and west parts of the plan on the state’s existing turf seem on somewhat sound ground. But then we get to the plaza.

As we approach San Antonio’s Tricentennial, we should be particularly attuned to the city’s early history. But, at least in the Executive Summary,* the Master Plan ignores the history of Mission San Antonio de Valero – a site not dubbed the Alamo until years later.

In the aftermath of the Battle, General Santa Anna ordered his troops to destroy as much of the site as possible. This was the beginning of the decline of the historic Alamo compound. Restoring the reverence and dignity of the Alamo is the obligation of our generation and the mission of our efforts.

The decline of the compound that originally was Mission San Antonio de Valero began earlier, before the mission was secularized. Where is that layer of history of the mission days? Not on page 1. Mission San Antonio de Valero is not even recognized by name in the summary until page 24. In the appendices.

Reimagining apparently calls for walling in the plaza and locking it up every night. The planners evidently believe members of the public incapable of envisioning the original walls of the compound. To do so, they must be restricted from entering the plaza aside from as a herd entering through a southern portal.

If returning the Alamo compound to its appearance at the time of the battle truly was a principal adhered to by the Master Plan, the “bold” plan would call for the removal of the iconic parapet added later by the United States Army.

Vehicular movement north and south through downtown currently is impaired. Removing another street from the existing clogged pattern is impractical. Yet, even so, it is difficult to argue that closure would not enhance the experience for pedestrians on the plaza.

But ceding the rights of pedestrians to cross through the plaza makes absolutely no sense. Public parks should be porous, easily accessible from all sides. Yet access to this civic space will be reserved to one entryway on its southern side.

Behind glass, this current pedestrian crossroad will become a dead-end. An Alamo cul-de-sac.

Thanks so much, John Branch, http://comicskingdom.com/john-branch

The city of San Antonio has struggled for years to revive Houston Street, and it finally provides a healthier retail environment. Houston Street merchants will again disappear if they lose the pedestrian traffic they need. Pedestrians will all be funneled in and out by way of Rivercenter.

Trees will be removed from the center of the plaza between the Alamo and the Crockett Block to create an open space, a space too hot under the Texas sun for anyone to linger.

A sizzling comal for tourists. A playground for reenactors. A place locals will avoid.

Paraphrasing W.S. Merwin, there is no recipe for “unchopping a tree.” Walk the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project and envision how many years, or generations, of growth it will take for the new saplings to recreate the groves of trees Spanish missionaries originally found along the river’s banks.

In exchange for placing much of the city’s space in a fishbowl with restricted access, the plan offers San Antonio “a new civic space – Plaza de Valero,” a tiny sliver of the plaza in front of the Menger Hotel. This is billed as: “an opportunity for visitors to have a quiet moment, in the shade of mature trees, enjoying food and refreshments, as they experience the reimagined Alamo.” This “new” space already exists.

The very definition of civic is “relating of or to a city or town or the people who live there.” We have a great civic space, the entire plaza, now. A place for exuberant celebrations and the exercise of first-amendment rights, rights championed by those who died at the Alamo. A spot for gathering in the shade of trees.

There is no reason City Council cannot approve the Alamo restoration on the east and the Museum concept on the west side of the plaza as envisioned in the Master Plan on May 11.

Obviously, improvements can be made to enhance historical interpretation in the plaza, but eliminating Alamo Plaza as a pedestrian passageway or civic gathering place for your citizens need not be a requisite to forward a portion of the plan. Judgment on the disposition of the roadway and plaza should be withheld pending refinement and public release of the full plan.

The many volunteers and professionals tackling this project should be commended for their efforts. But that does not mean this initial plan merits a rubber stamp. The streets and plaza belong to the City of San Antonio.

Please request a reexamination and rethinking of this portion of the plan. Don’t consent to turning a beautiful urban park into a walled-off wasteland of a plaza. A place completely isolated from the fabric of San Antonio.

Thank you for your consideration of this request from a concerned citizen.

P.S.  If one haunts the place of one’s death, would it not seem a Sisyphean hell if the only thing you got to witness was men reenacting your painful death over and over? Would you want the site of your bloody end preserved in the desolate state it was in in the aftermath of your death?

Or would you want to witness people actively enjoying the freedom for which you fought on a daily basis?

One resembles a horror film, the other a fulfillment of your dreams.

*As of this time, the only portion of the plan available to the public online is the sketchy Executive Summary. The public comments you receive prior to voting are based solely upon that and what can be pried out of presenters during hearings. The publicly funded Master Plan appears a closely guarded secret.