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Through the House of Terror

by Michael Brendan Dougherty

Remembering Hungary’s victims and perpetrators of totalitarianism

I entered a room and my senses were inundated by Communist propaganda. First, the sharp lush greens and yellows in idealized portraits of Hungarian workers in teeming fields and humming factories. Then bright mauves and siennas in a picture of “American bugs” devouring Hungarian agriculture. And then the stark red banners, and Comrade Stalin smiling his approval at me. I felt physical relief at the sight of it all. My tear ducts, which had been swelling all morning but never quite spilling their contents, started to relax. I was breathing easier. I wanted to spend half an hour relaxing in this benevolent Stalin’s line of vision. Because every other room in the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to the memory of the heroes and victims of the successive Fascist and Communist tyrannies in Hungary, was a trial, or pure misery. But in that one room you can glimpse the simulated utopia for which so much human happiness and so many human lives were destroyed.

The House of Terror was opened in 2002, under the direction of the first government led by Viktor Orban. The museum location at Andrassy Boulevard 60 is fitting. That building was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party, Hungary’s Fascist movement, and known then as the “House of Loyalty.” Later, under the Communists, the same building became the headquarters of the secret police. At the time the museum was opened, Orban’s government had the reputation of being firmly in the center-right camp of liberal consensus. And it seemed fitting that Hungary would open a museum that, as our guides explained on my visit, “has no double standards” when it comes to condemning Fascism and Communism. Indeed, the two regimes have shared guilt: Some of Hungary’s liberals and democrats were hauled into that building and tortured by both of Hungary’s totalitarian regimes.

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