The current Árpád Stripes then and now exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Center endeavours to reclaim the eponymous flag and the ancient Hungarian symbol of the Turul bird from the far right. The attempt fails.
With cardboard boxes everywhere, visitors to the former synagogue on Páva utca could be forgiven for thinking that the purpose-built Holocaust Memorial Centre is on the move again. On second glance, however, one notices that the boxes are pasted with huge far-right posters from the 1930s. Later we learn from the organisers that the cardboard boxes were put up for reasons of piety, since the building is, after all, a synagogue. It is a pity, however, that the impact of seeing anti-Semitic posters from the Arrow Cross-era is lost in such a setting. There could have been a discussion ad absurdum between the exhibited photographs of today’s members of the far right and the historic place of prayer, but the organisers went for wishy-washy didactics over hard-hitting impact.
In addition to the cardboard aesthetic disaster, the exhibition is also questionable in terms of its content. Visitors are first taken back to the Middle Ages. The problems start with the explanation of the emergence of the Árpád stripes, today a popular symbol of the far right. One video, in which illustrations from medieval chronicles are spliced with short sequences of demonstrating members of the new right, brings to mind the urban legend of innocuous films that were interspersed with subliminal frames from porn films to stimulate audiences.
Missing the point
Following a daring leap in time across several centuries, bridged by a seemingly random assortment of between-the-wars military paraphernalia, visitors find themselves in the thick of the thirties.
A seemingly unending series of nationalist and far-right posters give visitors an impression of the political mood of the inter-war period. It remains unclear what this has to do with the Árpád stripes and the Turul, since the Hungarian coat of arms can be seen in various forms on most of the posters. Although it features the Árpád stripes, happily nobody had branded it a far-right symbol at that point in time. Above the posters, way above eye level, is a series of photographs from the same period, which serves the same aim as the permanent exhibition in the basement of the building: the portrayal of regent Miklós Horthy as the compliant stooge of Adolf Hitler. A video zooms in on a handshake between the two despots, who loathed each other but also felt reliant on each other, circling their handshake in red in an unbearably didactic style.
The accompanying text in the style of communist-era history books notes that “some” still believe that the regent was a great patriot, while he was in reality a bloody, fascist dictator. Unfortunately there is no mention of the fact that Horthy’s personality and role were in reality much more ambiguous.
Instead the Horthy period is referred to several times as a “counter-revolutionary system” – the use of this term taken from communist jargon without quotation marks is an astonishing error, and inexcusable for an exhibition with historical pretensions.
In the next section real fascists are on view, and the exhibition fortunately returns to its main focus. The reproduction of a page of Ferenc Szálasi’s prison diary strikingly demonstrates how the later “leader of the nation” developed his Árpád-stripes flag featuring the arrow cross with no historical knowledge on a sheet of paper ,sometime between lunch and his daily walk in the prison yard. Shocking footage of deportations and people murdered and pushed into the Danube are shown; at least for a moment visitors sense something of this terrible time, not so long ago.
Colouring the past
The exhibition’s handful of videos, which visitors hear in chorus due to unfortunate positioning, confront visitors with the low points of contemporary politics in Hungary. The recounting of the history of the Árpád stripes flag and the Turul bird symbol since 1989 is brimming with inaccuracies and incorrect information. Right at the start the decision shortly after the change of regime to favour the coat of arms with the Hungarian crown, rather than the so-called Kossuth coat of arms, is described as the “first defeat of the democratic forces”.
This is surprising because it was, after all, a decision made by the first democratically-elected parliament. It may be that some leftists would have preferred the Kossuth coat of arms – there were good arguments for both versions – but putting the boot in after 20 years and branding the then parliamentary majority undemocratic betrays a lack of awareness.
The low point of the exhibition, however, is the sequence showing shots of far-right activists marching, with the inference that they were able to pursue their activities with the support of the government of Viktor Orbán. Here the true purpose of the exhibition become clear: as election campaign material for Hungary’s ideologically bankrupt left wing, whose only sense of cohesion comes from constant warnings about the supposed far-right dictator Viktor Orbán. Today, the stripes only became a visible sign of protest on the streets after the ‘lies’ speech of left-wing Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2006.
This is highly regrettable since the exhibition could have been very important before the self-styled “prime minister of the nation” Orbán regains power in the spring and – as he is on record as saying – “sends right-wing extremists like Horthy home with a clip round the ear”. It may well be that by then it will no longer be possible to talk about right-wing radicalism, let alone put on an exhibition about it.
The Árpád-stripes then and now
Runs until 28February 2010
Holocaust Memorial Center, District IX, Páva utca 39
Open: Tues-Sun: 10am – 6pm. Closed Mondays.
www.hdke.hu (in English)