“What we would have thought impossible – that a people could single-handedly defeat a totalitarian state – has become reality.” –Raymond Aron, French Philosopher
In the center of Budapest stands a large structure which looks like a classical-style office building or apartment block. Its clean lines and light gray color give it a benevolent appearance, but an iron ledge that hangs out over the corniced roof produces shadows on the building that reveal its true character. Streams of daylight radiating through cut iron letters onto the building’s facade reveal the word ‘TERROR.’
The House of Terror Museum stands as a memorial to the victims and survivors of the two totalitarian regimes that terrorized Hungary in the 20th century. During the Nazi occupation, hundreds of Hungarians were tortured and killed in the cellar of this building, which is buried beneath the street. And the horrors of the Soviet era–the torture, interrogations, internment, and killings that were performed to quash dissenters–are also memorialized here.
This month we have been reading The Bridge at Andau by James Michener as part of our online book club: Travel Europe Through Books. This powerful non-fiction book details the events of the 1956 Uprising in Hungary, in which ordinary citizens attempted to overthrow Soviet communist oppression and gain national independence. For a short while, they succeeded.
Using only borrowed rifles and handmade explosives, the citizens of Budapest made the ultimate effort and sacrifice to gain their freedom from communist tyranny. It began on October 23, 1956, and ended with Russia’s surrender of Budapest on October 29th. The insurgents had destroyed a good number of Russian tanks, burned communist books, and united its citizens–among which were many former communists–against the Soviet communist ideology.
Unfortunately, the Russians came back with a fury on November 4th to crush the revolution, and Hungary again came under tyranny. But the revolt and subsequent brutality on Budapest’s streets made apparent to the rest of the world the true face of Soviet communism and what extreme measures were used to maintain it.
Living in Austria, near the Hungarian border, at the time this was happening, the young journalist James Michener watched the flow of refugees fleeing Hungary into Austria. He waited nightly with other journalists to capture the harrowing passages of Hungarians, under the watchful eye of snipers, onto free soil. The final steps on their flight to safety included the small wooden ‘Bridge at Andau,’ which became the title of his book, published in 1957. Michener used a journalistic style to construct The Bridge at Andau, which is based on the testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Uprising (and other acts of oppression) whom he interviewed after their escape.
Within the House of Terror Museum, the 1956 Uprising has its own exhibit. Here visitors can view the coat of Gergely Pongratz, commander of the largest and best-known group of freedom fighters in the Uprising, who destroyed soviet armored vehicles and resisted several waves of assault. Automatic rifles from the events, and hand-made weapons like the ones used then can also be viewed. The events of The Bridge at Andau come to life in this museum.
Here is a description from the museum’s website:
“The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight struck a fatal blow at the Soviet empire. Those in the West who had lent their sympathy and support to the communist human experiment were disillusioned to see the Soviets using tanks to bloodily crush the heroism of the Hungarians.”
“The Hungarian freedom fighters wanted national independence: they wanted the occupying Soviet Army to finally leave Hungary. They wanted freedom: the freedom to decide on the political and economic order of their country. For these goals they were willing to sacrifice their lives. Leading the masses in revolt were university students and young workers. Their demands and goals were shared by the whole nation, with the exception of diehard communists sponsored by the Soviets.” (Click HERE for more information.)
For British journalist James Bartholomew a visit to the House of Terror made a deep impression. He described his experience in The Spectator:
“I learned many things I did not know. From Hungary, 600,000 people were taken to work camps in the Soviet Union and half did not return, dying of maltreatment and starvation. There were videos of some of the survivors talking about the horrific way in which they were treated. Of course, I had heard about the millions of deaths that took place in the Soviet Union at the hands of Stalin. Since I have returned, I have discovered that there were mass deaths across the Eastern bloc...
”For me, the video testimony of survivors was the most powerful exhibit in Budapest. Such testimony needs to be gathered from around the world while those affected are still alive. In order to put together such exhibits we would need major donors. And the need for this is pressing. If we do not create it, all this will be forgotten.”
An Austrian film called Der Bockerer III (2000) also does a fairly good job of portraying the flight out of Hungary via the Bridge at Andau. Hungarians making secret preparations to escape, tearing down the watchtower, and hurrying over the bridge at risk of death are all included in this powerful drama. If you don’t mind watching in German, without subtitles, it’s worth a watch.
While study of the 1956 Uprising is particularly intriguing to those interested in European history and politics, the casual reader–or museum visitor–or film viewer–can also benefit from a better understanding of what happened. We all can. Totalitarianism usually creeps in like weeds, little by little, disguised in lies and false agendas. We can recognize them more easily if we know what has happened before. It is up to us all to resolve to never let tyranny rule again, and step up to defend freedom wherever it is threatened.