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Occupy Monument, 2018, 4 pieces, 35x50 cm, mixed technic, paper

The infamous monuments of Freedom Square

There’s a square in the heart of Budapest, not far from the Hungarian Parliament, called Freedom Square. With its name, location and history, it has the potential to be the most prestigious venue of Hungarian collective memory. It could be a place where facing our history could result in building values for our future.

Any square with the same attributes would be an obvious choice for national representation for any reigning government. This is the reason why the Freedom Square had been transformed multiple times since its early days: while it used to be a place to mourn after Hungary lost ⅔ of its territories as a result of the peace treaty ending WWI, under the Soviet influence it switched focus to represent gratitude for the Soviet Union for liberating Hungary after WWII. These mutually exclusive narratives - nationalist sentiments and desires to rebuild the nation-state VS being a thankful member of the Eastern Bloc - still have their long-lasting effect on the current conflicts building around memorials in the Freedom Square.

That being said, in Hungary we got used to not very well executed monuments being erected in the public sphere - the usual reactions to these are mostly smiles with a sarcastic remarks or complete ignorance. But the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation was a completely different case from the first second as its idea was introduced to the public in 2014. It has an extremely simplifying statement: with Archangel Gabriel as a symbol of Hungary being attacked by an eagle representing the occupying German forces, it suggests the terrors of WWII happened to innocent Hungary. While it constitutes the nation as an innocent victim of events without any possibility of resisting, it also denies the omnipresence of Nazi ideology in Hungary prior to German soldiers stepping on Hungarian soil, and equals to taking any responsibility for what happened afterwards. This idea fits perfectly in the victim narrative that FIDESZ had been building: based on their framework, Hungary had been innocent in every case while evil outer powers corrupted it, and our nation had to suffer through these periods without any possibility of standing up for ourselves.

Eleven Emlékmű (Living Memorial)

When I’ve read the title of this exhibition, They Shouldn’t Be Able To Pretend They Didn’t Know Anything, I felt that this sentence grasps the core issues that had been voiced in connection with the opposed monument at Freedom Square. Even though most monuments in the streets of Budapest can’t really make any effect on passer-bies, having a statue like this on one of the most prestigious spots of the city caused major turmoil amongst those who believe that historical representation shouldn’t be a playground of arbitrary narratives. Not just its message but also the execution went against any proper process: the statue was erected in secret and because of the protests, it never was officially inaugurated - as if the stakeholders were aware that what they were doing is unacceptable but still did it anyway, hoping that the resistance will wear off - as they mostly do in Hungary. This one did not.

Plenty of different groups and individuals shared their disagreement with erecting this statue, but the most active out of them all is the Eleven Emlékmű (Living Memorial) community. The group that was initiated by artists, art historians and historians who felt that this monument crossed a line, especially amidst the rise of nationalism, racism, anti semitism and xenophobia. As a start, they created a counter-monument consisting of personal items, photographs and memories of people whose families suffered losses during the German occupation - showing many different shades of the situation that was so simplified by the official monument. They also organized discussions which meant that they sat down on Freedom Square every afternoon and talked about those very complicated historical aspects through personal connections. Their meetings from the beginning were open for anyone to join. That’s the reason why the white chairs became the symbol of Living Memorial - the symbol of sitting down to share and also to listen.

This way, Living Memorial slowly became much more than just the opposition of a historically inaccurate monument: it also turned into an advocate of freedom of speech and the importance of sharing and discussing opinions freely while being able to listen, as this is how all democratic states and its members should deal with complex questions at hand. 4 years later, Living Memorial still gathers multiple times a week: their focus is no longer just the monument they oppose, but they discuss the most diverse topics that affect the Hungarian society from education through art to politics. They even managed to building their infrastructure so they could meet during winter time when sitting outside for a longer period is not an option. With their resilience, Living Memorial became a great example of building communities with the goal of having a responsible civic society that is capable of discussing difficult topics and standing up when human rights are threatened.

What will the future bring?

When it comes to the monument, it’s difficult to say, but the statue is most probably here to stay: Fidesz won’t let go of it as it would mean admitting a failure. But they also can’t officially inaugurate, not even after 4 years, so the monument stays in this frozen in-between state while the Living Memorial’s personal items also became integral part of the Freedom Square’s sights.

But as Csaba Nemes’s work shows, removing the statue after a potential change of political elite might be a bad decision: this monument could be a great echo of how those in power and those with great conscientiousness fought their battles over values in the 2010s in Hungary: the government with force and power, while the Living Memorial and its community with embracing the sometimes uncomfortable discussions to be able to move forward from the hurtful past.

text by Vanda Sárai