An Era Of Terror – Memento Park: “Stalin’s Boots” in Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 47)

Any park that has as its centerpiece “Stalin’s Boots”, is bound to demand your attention. In this case, “Stalin’s Boots” were not made for walking, they were made for trampling. Trampling the hopes and aspirations of Hungarians until one incredible day in October 1956 the people had enough. That was when the massive statue of Stalin was pulled down. Along with it went hardline Stalinism in Hungary. It would eventually be replaced by “Goulash Communism”. One of the most powerful photos from that historic day shows Stalin’s giant head laying on the ground. This was the face plant felt round the world. The only thing still standing of that Stalin was his boots. The massive symbol of Soviet might had been cut down to size.

“Stalin’s Boots” became an iconic and ironic symbol of a stagnant, stolid system that was stuck in place. For no Stalin ever appeared again in Hungary to fill those boots. Like the communist system, “Stalin’s Boots” could still stand on their own, but the menace that filled them had disappeared. In its place, were straw men, invisible men, who no longer dictated, but decreed and directed. The power of Stalin’s boots was the period it evoked. The era of terror, total control and all-consuming fear that gripped Hungary from 1948 to 1956 came screaming to a halt during the Hungarian Revolution until the uprising was put down by Soviet forces. The power of those boots and that dark history can be felt on a visit to Memento Park. This is where “Stalin’s Boots” joins a sobering series of magnificently awful communist era sculptures set aside in a park unlike any other I have ever visited.

An Arresting Reminder - Stalin's Boots at Memento Park

An Arresting Reminder – Stalin’s Boots at Memento Park

Discarded Detritus – Communist Curios On A Superhuman Scale
When the iron curtain fell, so did thousands of statues all over Eastern Europe. Hundreds of these were pulled down in Hungary, many of them in Budapest. The pantheon of communist heroes such as Lenin and Marx, a wide range of local apparatchiks, fierce looking soldiers and joyful workers were pulled down. They were replaced by a whole new cast of characters, democratic, capitalist and aristocratic heroes began to reappear in the same squares where many of them had once stood decades earlier. The understandable reaction among the Hungarian populace that had labored under totalitarianism was to have the communist era statues discarded once and for all time. Yet this was also history that could not be wiped away so easily. These same sculptures and statues not only represented a failed system, they also represented the past. One that in the heady rush to freedom and democracy most of the population wanted to forget.

The dustbin of history during the early 1990’s was overflowing with the discarded detritus of totalitarian set pieces. A few brave Hungarian voices in Budapest stated that the statues should be set aside and interpreted for what they were, communist propaganda etched, carved and written in stone. These people understood that an important part of the past would be lost if these set pieces were not preserved. In the nation’s capital, a novel idea took root. Rather than destroy propaganda from the recent past that had pockmarked the cityscape, they would instead be moved to an open-air museum and placed in proximity to one another. Tourists would be welcome to visit what most Hungarians would rather forget. It would be a trove of communist curios all on a superhuman scale.

A Revolutionary Reappraisal - Lenin still standing

A Revolutionary Reappraisal – Lenin still standing

An Arresting Reminder – Meet The Parents
For me, as for the 40,000 tourists who annually visit Memento Park, getting there was not exactly easy. The park is nowhere near the city center. Instead it requires a bus trip to the distant southwestern suburbs of Buda where the park stands in a former farm field. I made my way to the park by first taking a tram to Kelenfold Train Station where I then picked up one of the buses that regular travel the route. Onboard the bus, I noticed that the passengers were almost all locals. I would not hear a word of English spoken on the 20 minute ride. Fortunately, the bus driver seemed to understand when I first boarded and said “Memento Park” while pointing at myself. I assumed that he would notify me when we arrived at the correct stop. That is exactly what happened twenty minutes later.

Departing from the bus, I found myself along what could have been any highway in the countryside. Budapest seemed a long way from here even though the city center was only five kilometers away. The development was not nearly as dense out here along the city’s periphery. I quickly walked across Highway 7 towards the park. I was almost immediately greeted by a strange sight. On the right side of the road were two wooden barracks that looked like they had been lifted straight out of a labor camp and strategically placed near the entrance to Memento Park. The barracks acted as an arresting reminder of where communism often ended up.

A Recent Memory - Memento Park

A Recent Memory – Memento Park

No Laughing Matter – The Power To Destroy
Between the two barracks I could see “Stalin’s Boots”. This reproduction was not an exact replica of the original, but the model sufficed. Of note, was the austere concrete platform where communist officials would have stood with Stalin’s presence hovering over them, a figure of towering and unassailable omnipotence. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those who stood as I did below the platform peering up at the massive sculpture. The statue and platform were an awe-inspiring symbol of vile statecraft. Hungarians were forced to look up to Stalin just as he was looking down upon them. He held the power of life and death over them.

I then turned around to enter the open-air museum portion of the park where 42 statues and sculptures stood. Looking at the open-air museum, I felt a sense of irony. It was like viewing the world’s largest advertisement for failure. Yet communism and its remnants were no laughing matter. Tens of thousands of Hungarians lost their lives and/or their livelihoods due to a system that sacrificed the individual for the state, substituted human creativity for mind numbing conformity and demanded the subjugation of the masses in pursuit of a twisted dystopia. Viewing these statues and contemplating what they stood for begged the question: If communists were trying to represent heaven on earth than I could only wonder what would have been their idea of hell.

Flights Of Freedom – The Bridge At Andau: Birdwatching & The Old Iron Curtain

The average person who lives to be 70 years old will take about 195 million steps in their lifetime, the equivalent of walking 99,000 miles. Some steps are much more important than others. A few steps can be the difference from a person living a life of freedom as opposed to one under tyranny. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the autumn of 1956 when historic steps were taken by Hungarian refugees to cross a small footbridge into Austria. What is known as the Bridge at Andau (German: Brücke von Andau Hungarian: Andaui-hid) was a bridge to freedom. Thousands fleeing oppression in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule used the bridge to escape westward. Rarely has such a small, remote place taken on such critical importance, acting as a passage from east to west for 70,000 people on the road to freedom. I traveled to the Austria-Hungary border this fall to visit the rebuilt bridge and try to grasp its historic significance. The bridge was not what I thought it was going to be.

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

Judging A Bridge By A Cover – Fleeing To The Free World
My iconic image of the Bridge at Andau comes from a painting on the cover of the paperback edition of James Michener’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name.  It shows a sturdy bridge with multiple buttresses crossing a modest waterway. The first time I saw the book’s cover I thought the bridge must be in Spain, for some reason Andau sounded exotic and like Spanish to me. I thought the book was probably some type of historical romance. The bridge looked like the kind of place lovers might stroll across. It is said not to judge a book by its cover. I might add that one should not judge a bridge by an artistic rendition. The actual bridge looked nothing like the one portrayed on the book’s cover.  Likewise, the title is misleading. There is no bridge at Andau. I discovered this after driving into the village under a beautiful blue sky interspersed with scattered, floating clouds. Andau is the village nearest to the bridge. To access the bridge from Andau requires a drive of another nine kilometers down a narrow, paved road.

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

The road had twice as many cyclists as cars traveling on it. Beside the road, ninety sculptures made out of wood and iron acted as startling counterpoints to the serene natural environment of the area.  One of these involved two wooden sentry boxes standing on either side of the road, each of them housing a bare chested, emaciated man dressed only in shorts. Another was of a naked old man carved out of wood. His hands placed over his midsection, with his face contorted in an excessively sorrowful expression. These sculptures go on and on and on, interspersed every hundred meters or so. The combined effect was of a sort of open air museum of human suffering. During the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956, this route was known as the Road of Hope. Because of the sculptures it has been given an added name, the Road of Woes, a stark reminder of the human toll that was paid by everyone fleeing to the free world.

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

Bridging A Historic Divide – Opening Borders
The sculptures were eerie companions that haunted every kilometer of the drive from Andau to the bridge. At times I wondered whether I was on the correct road or not. Finally a guard tower appeared in the near distance and then another, surely the bridge must be nearby. There was a small parking area adjacent to a very stout and well-built wooden bridge. It looked nothing like the scene portrayed on the cover of Michener’s book. From what I have been able to find through research, the present bridge looks nothing like the historic bridge, which was rickety and ramshackle. The current bridge was built to last, not for historical accuracy. I have been able to find only one photo of the original bridge from 1945, when much of it was in pieces at the end of the Second World War. The lack of pictures is not surprising. People running for their lives were not stopping to take pictures in 1956.

The bridge was there for one reason, to get over the narrow Einser Canal, a waterway that was not especially deep or swift, but a barrier that must be crossed. I walked across the bridge into Hungary and back across in a couple of minutes. It was that simple now to cross the border. 21st century Europe’s relatively open borders were the counter-reaction to a 20th century Europe where nations, regions and ideologies were closed off or compartmentalized from one another. The present ease of crossing borders was an historical anomaly. Just over a decade ago there was the usual border control. A political as well as a physical divide has been bridged. Unlike by the end of November 1956 when there was no bridge left here. The Soviets blew it to bits. The border was then closed until 1989. This serene natural area had once been a closely guarded segment of the Iron Curtain.

The Einser Canal - along the Austria-Hungary border

The Einser Canal – along the Austria-Hungary border

Natural Instincts – From Birder’s Paradise To A Human Yearning
Impregnable and dangerous for decades, the bridge was now nothing more than a small historic site, something of an afterthought, to the area’s main claim to fame as part of the cross border Neusiedler See-Seewinkel (Austria) – Ferto-Hansag National Park (Hungary), most notable for its wetlands and birds. An ornithologist from Scotland was on the bridge keenly watching with binoculars for some strange species of birdlife to suddenly appear. While telling me about the bridge’s Cold War history – including a mention of Michener’s book – he would suddenly spy a bird in the distance, shout the species name and study its flight path with prolonged interest. How ironic that just thirty years before men in guard towers were sitting with binoculars waiting to catch a person trying to cross this border. Now a birding enthusiast stood on the rebuilt bridge waiting for the next birds to take flight, a purely natural instinct, not unlike the instinct for freedom that drove so many Hungarians to cross the Bridge At Andau in 1956.