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.

August 19, 2017, Update: And Prague. “Empty pedestals can offer the same lessons,” Kevin Levin, The Atlantic, August 19, 2017

Peace be with you in the park… and in Mexico

From a distance they resemble chubby bunnies playing ring around the rosie around the Confederate Monument in Travis Park, but their messages of peace and love from San Antonio’s sister city of Monterrey, Mexico, become quickly evident. Peaceful valentines from a country pleading for peace.

We had just walked by the bell of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the bell Sam Maverick supposedly forged from a cannon used during the Battle of the Alamo. Coming up to the cannon “guarding” the monument in Travis Park, we found the board announcing the peaceful exchange of art leaning against it. The statue memorializing the Confederate dead temporarily is framed by 30 peace signs as interpreted by emerging artists from Mexico.

Mano Factura: Arte Regio remains on display until March 5. 

Please come and take them away from downtown San Antonio

You spent a year planning your wedding. Your ceremony will be Saturday in the church whose bell Sam Maverick had forged from cannon from the Alamo. Your attendants will line the sidewalk leading from St. Mark’s under the canopy of trees in Travis Park, showering guests with rose petals as they walk to the reception in the historic St. Anthony Hotel.

Whoops. Sorry you didn’t get the word.

Travis Park will be filled with approximately 1,000 armed men on Saturday afternoon.

But don’t worry. Your guests should feel really safe because these men with shotguns and rifles are really responsible. I mean, out of 1,000, what are the odds one would be a little mentally imbalanced or trigger-happy?

Of course, part of their plan is to try to antagonize the San Antonio Police Department by skirting or outright violating city ordinances and daring the police to arrest someone.

This is a goal because then they can howl all over the internet and sue the city. They want to show everyone San Antonio police are unreasonable in their attempts to make the rest of us unarmed people feel safe, those of us who might fear the one out of 1,000.

Alamo Plaza is such a small area of San Antonio in which to stage a protest – Come and Take It, the newest event added to San Antonio’s festival schedule. Yes, there will be great photo ops in front of the Alamo, but staying put in one place might not make the police nervous enough to arrest someone for carrying a weapon in a threatening manner.

Yes, the demonstrators will maintain an armed presence in Alamo Plaza from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but a large contingent of these law-abiding citizens will break away for Travis Park at 12:30 p.m., according to Murdoch Pizgatti of Don’t Comply.

There they will have stump speeches, revving up the crowd against the tyranny of police who would respond to a 911-call by some citizen who found it alarming when one of the Come-and-Take-It crowd walked into a Starbucks with a rifle or came and sat down with a trusty shotgun in a crowded movie theatre. Right there, in Travis Park, under what Murdoch calls “the statue.” You know the one. The Confederate monument.

If no one has been arrested yet, the group will then head for a little downtown “tour” out front of one of the police stations. And then back around through downtown to wind up the whole family friendly event in front of the Alamo.

Not content to be able to take their guns hunting, to keep them bedside to guard against intruders or in hand on a ranch in case of rattlesnakes, they want to brandish them downtown. They feel insecure unarmed, like Linus without his blanket. Because for these men “the front line is everywhere.”

In my mind, the Come and Take It guys have stolen downtown from me and thousands of others Saturday.

Use your guns to hunt and protect your own property; don’t bring them into our shared public spaces – you know, parks and such maintained by tax dollars many of you view as money stolen from you.

Personally, I want to thank all the members of the San Antonio Police Department who put their lives on the lines for us everyday, to make sure the rest of us can work and play downtown. You should not be harassed the way you will be tomorrow, and particularly not by the Land Commissioner of Texas. the self-proclaimed “#1 gun guy in Texas” who longs for a time when kids are free to take antique guns to school for show and tell.

“They say Sam Maverick forged the bell for St. Mark’s from a cannon used during the Battle of the Alamo. If only the concept proved contagious….” Postcards from San Antonio – No. 12, “Peace be with you.”