Double Occupation

I’m in Budapest right now and this morning I spent a couple of hours in the “House of Terror” — a former administrative building, police headquarters, prison, and place for interrogation (read: torture) and execution during both the Nazi and Communist occupations of Hungary.

The museum that now occupies the space does a surprisingly good job of guiding the visitor through almost sixty years of knotted and difficult history. I had no idea, before coming here, that the country had been subjected to totalitarian puppet-governments for so long.

As I walk around now, I’m struck not only by how horrific and complex this country’s recent history is but also how at ease it seems with this history already.

In a lot of ways, it seems a part of the fabric. History clings to it, clogs it up, like the thick soot and grime of pollutants that make so many of the imposing city blocks look their age — and look all the grander for it.

(I must confess: I am not very well travelled. This is my first time in a country that was once hidden behind the Iron Curtain, and so I don’t know if what I am about to say is unusual or typical. Forgive me if I’m being naive, but…)

What is fascinating to me is that, although this city has a three-story building, a major monument by any measure, the entire purpose of which is to remember the horrors of the Nazi and Communist regimes — and, if only due to its longevity, the terrors of the Communist regime seem much worse by Hungary’s measure — there is still nonetheless a noticeable presence of Communist tat here.

Of course, you won’t find any Nazi merchandise, not even of the “spoils of war” kind you find elsewhere, but you can buy Communist stars on street corners amongst other things.

The House of Terror talks, at one point, of a “double occupation” — a moment where the Nazis and Communists fought for control of the city, each eventually as unwelcome as the other. This phrase seems just as applicable to the present moment too, however. Communism has had a double occupation here all of its own — in the streets and, now, in the imagination.

It’s no surprise that the ideals of communism perservere whereas so many other ideologies have fallen by the wayside, but it is a surprise to find them still visible here, even as tourist souvenirs, all things considered…

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