- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

BUDAPEST, Hungary — You can feel the heaviness of the past when you enter Budapest's House of Terror Museum. It is not just that this otherwise unremarkable apartment building in the heart of Hungary's capital, at Andrassy Boulevard 60, is painted an ominous uniform gray, or that black and red dominate the interior or that dark strands of violins work on your nerves as you pass through the entrance. It is because here the Hungarian secret police, first that of the Nazis, then the communists, had their headquarters from 1944-1956. Here the Department of the Political Police interrogated, tortured and murdered those suspected of activities against the state.

It is a gruesome legacy which Hungarians only now will have the opportunity to explore, more than a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Judging by the crowd of 30,000 which turned up Sunday to watch Prime Minister Viktor Orban declare the museum open, there is a need to face the crimes of the two totalitarian regimes.

It is no wonder you can imagine evil seeping from these stones. Some 3,200 Hungarian were subjected to political trials, and 400 of them were condemned to death. Beyond that, the fascist Arrow Cross Party helped the Nazis send close to half a million Jews to German concentration camps. Between 700,000 and 800,000 Hungarians ended up as slave labor in the Soviet Gulag. Hundreds of thousands of others fled their country after the uprising against the communists in 1956.

The rulers of Hungary went from fascism to communism without missing a step. "We can learn the class struggle from the justice of the fascists," so one quotation from a communist prosecutor reads. The sick brutality they deployed to hold the population in their tight grip is mind-blowing. In the basement, where dank cells and interrogation rooms, reeking of pain and despair, are now open to visitors an instruction to prison guards reads: "Don't just guard, hate."

From the first object on display, a Soviet tank used in 1956 to crush the Hungarian rebellion to the last, the "hall of liberation," with videos of the Soviet army leaving in 1991, the message is clear. This horror was imposed on Hungary from outside. But Hungarians, too, became the victimizers. An army of 40,000 informers was scattered throughout society, at the offices of the media, in the universities, even in the churches. No one could be certain that friends or family were not among them. One room of the House of Terror houses one of the grim black limousines that might turn up at midnight to carry you and your family away to an unknown fate. There's even a period doorbell to provide the soundtrack for terror. For many, the ring was equal to a death sentence.

While the museum is clearly designed to draw in visitors, inspired in some ways by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, it will also contain archives available for research. Former Gorbachev adviser Alexander Yakovlev attended the opening, bringing 22 volumes of documents from the Stalin period as a donation.

It takes time to face history such as this. Of the countries of the former East bloc, Hungary is one of the first to open a public museum to the victims of communism. Other museums are found in the capitals of the Baltic countries. Poland has one in Gdansk. None is as extensive as this. As for the Russians, says noted dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, for 12 years a prisoner in the Soviet gulag, they are far from ready for something like this. "Not in my lifetime," he says.

Even before opening, the museum has seen its share of controversy. Mr. Orban, whose right-wing government has funded the $10 million construction, has been criticized for using the museum as a political tool against the opposition Socialists, a.k.a. the former communists. The fact that many of those whose faces are on display in the "hall of victimizers" are still alive and have children in influential political positions has only added fuel to the flames. Museum Director Maria Schmidt has come in for her share of abuse. In an article in the Hungarian press, "The lesson of the Eichmann Trial," she argued several years ago why remembering is essential to recovery. "I immediately became the most hated person in the country," she says.

The impact among ordinary Hungarians, however, is clear. Saturday night, before opening day, the streets outside the House of Terror filled with Hungarians holding candles in a quiet, mournful vigil. Interestingly, on the morning of the opening itself, the Socialists issued a statement apologizing to "anyone who was mistreated in the second half of the 20th century," but also condemning "the falsification of history." If they win the next election, in May, the Socialists promised to make the museum a monument to "remembering and reconciliation."

"Reconciliation is always an expression for those who committed the crimes," Mr. Orban says dryly. "Memory is for the victims."

What many would like to see is a similar monument to the victims of communism in Washington, which already is home to a memorial to the Holocaust. It would be fitting, not just for the sake of commemorating the 100 million killed by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and lesser dictators, but also because, without the example and the power of the United States, totalitarianism would still hold large parts of the world in its grip. That should not be forgotten either.


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