House of Terror, Budapest

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The Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan had a routine that discussed the standard 1-2-3 division of Irish school classes. For Tiernan, group (1) consisted of those who did arts degrees; group (2) numbered those who went on make money; and, as for group (3), well, that was just where the bus brought them.

A Hungarian friend once explained the very different streaming trinity that operated in schools in the Eastern Bloc:

(1) the children of Party apparatchiks;

(2) the children of actual workers;

(3) the children of those that the parents of group (1) employed to keep the parents of group (2) in line.

On 13 February 2008, I paid a visit to the House of Terror, the Terror Háza, on Andrássy út in Pest, where the tour started on the second floor with an animated map graphic showing the ebbs and flows of Hungary’s borders in the twentieth century. The lines moved to and fro to a rhythmic, ominous soundtrack that was soon echoed elsewhere by the “Hungaria” onscreen ranting of the widely supported Nazi puppet Szálasi, in a room lined by Arrow Cross uniforms. Even when the SS had fled, after the Russians had crossed the Danube upriver, the Arrow Cross continued to shoot any Jews they could find on the Buda side of the city.

The even more enthusiastic – Stalinist – puppet Rákosi appeared sinister in a more low-key way (he was like a bank manager, with a shaved head) but it was interesting to note that Kádár himself got a dose of the medicine there. Kádár tirelessly resisted the various forms of fascism that Hungary endured between 1920-45 but he sided with the Soviet invasion of 1956. In accepting a Soviet garrison of 200,000 in its aftermath, he was able to divert much Hungarian defence spending into welfare. Today he remains the much-missed Jáni Bácsi (‘Uncle Johnny’). His proved to be the most liberal state in the Eastern Bloc, even though the communists had destroyed all independent cultural and folk institutions, leaving a deeply cynical, atomised society. Kádár ruled (1956-88) at a time when Western loans, Eastern Bloc protectionism and some low-key private enterprise helped maintain a standard of living beyond the reach of most Hungarians since 1989. Life is a compromise, as he himself once said. His favourite book was said to be The Good Soldier Švejk.

Those dungeons were smelly and it wasn’t like a wine cellar – my companion, a dental patient, thought they might have added some audio (“screams”) down there but then added that it would surely have freaked out the many young girls we saw touring the place.

After all that, I suggested Beckett’s Irish bar, where soon we got talking to a familiar English face in the form of J., late of the French Foreign Legion and security contracting in Afghanistan. He told us that when the late bomb-maker Edward Teller, a Hungarian, was asked during an Internet Q&A session if he thought there were aliens on Earth, his answer was unequivocal.

Yes. There are ten million of them. And they all live in Hungary.”

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