Monuments are intended to be permanent, but their lives are often cut short by the turbulent events of history. In Central Europe this is a well-known phenomenon. Political change in this region tends to involve a transformation of urban scenery, such as the removal of Communist public sculptures after 1989 or the toppling of Prague’s Marian column in 1918. For whatever reason it happens, the defacement, destruction or replacement of monuments is integral to their function. They are not aesthetic objects that invite contemplation, but political ones that participate in public discourse, and consequently the response to them is also political. The destruction of the Marian column was a spontaneous act of the revolutionary crowd; in other cases, it is the government that directs the removal of old monuments and the setting up of new ones. In the course of the last hundred years, each political regime has imposed its own memory politics on urban spaces. Some city squares, those with a greater symbolic importance, underwent many transformations as the decades passed.
Budapest’s Kossuth Square is a case in point. Situated in front of the Neo-Gothic Parliament building designed by Imre Steindl (1839–1902) and flanked by other governmental buildings, it is a prime location for the self-representation of the state. For the same reason, it also attracts anti-government demonstrations. Throughout its 120-year existence, it has been home to various different public monuments, which came, went – and sometimes returned.
Situated immediately by the Danube, Kossuth Square was originally called “Landfill Square”, a humble name that signalled its origins: the level of the ground here had been raised by filling the territory with piles of rubbish. Construction of the Parliament began in 1885 and the building was completed in 1904. In the 1880s and 1890s, the Ministry of Agriculture (1885–1886, by Gyula Bukovics) and the Palace of Justice (1893–1896, by Alajos Hauszmann) were erected on the opposite side of the square. In 1898, the name of the square was changed to Országház tér (Parliament Square).
In 1904, Parliament Square was a fine public square: it was spacious, neat, and offered some pleasant patches of greenery, as well as – if one walked down by the side of the Parliament – a view of the Danube. But what is a central square in a government district without monuments? The issue was already being dealt with: the erection of a monument to Gyula Andrássy (1823–1890), the first Hungarian prime minister after the Compromise of 1867, had been decided by the government in 1890, and György Zala (1858–1937) had won the competition to design it. The equestrian statue was unveiled in 1906. Although somewhat old-fashioned, it was nevertheless a good quality example of historicist sculpture. With the reliefs on its plinth showing Andrássy’s achievements as a negotiator, the monument as a whole celebrated Hungarian parliamentarism and the political structure of the Austro-Hungarian dual Monarchy.
The idea for the second statue to be erected on the square also originated in the 1890s. Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894), leader of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–49 had died in emigration in 1894, and in the same year fundraising began to erect his statue in Budapest; in contrast to the Andrássy statue, this was a public initiative. In 1906, János Horvay (1873–1944) won the competition to realise it, and he began working on the monument in 1911. The war interrupted the plans, and it was only in 1927 that the monument was finally inaugurated. In the same year, the name of the square was changed to Kossuth Square.
Although they were meant to coexist peacefully, the figures represented in the first two monuments on Kossuth Square personified two opposing political stances, transposing the political tensions of the Dual Monarchy into the interwar period. Andrássy had been one of the architects of the Compromise, a political realist who cooperated with the Habsburgs to make the new system work. Between 1871 and 1879, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Viennese government and played an essential role in the 1878 occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite having fought in the Revolution, he had become a loyal subject of the Emperor. Kossuth, by contrast, rejected the Compromise and everything Andrássy stood for.
In that fleeting moment just before the war, when reverence for Kossuth was no longer banned, but the Monarchy had not yet lost its appeal, the two seemed to be reconcilable, at least if made of bronze and stone. After the collapse of Austria-Hungary, however, Andrássy became a symbol of the old order – which is why his statue was covered up during the 1919 Council Republic – while Kossuth was a figure onto whom many different groups, from nationalists to Communists, could inscribe their own political ideals and aspirations.
By the time the Kossuth monument was actually set up, the political situation had changed decisively, but the unification of these two strands of Hungarian nationalism fitted with the political ideology of Regent Miklós Horthy’s regime, which retained the aristocratic veneer of the Dualist period and employed the nationalist rhetoric of the Revolution, while carefully avoiding the subversive, plebeian elements of the latter. Horvay’s Kossuth statue did not display particular revolutionary fervour, and thus fitted into this ideological framework. Kossuth was depicted as Minister of Finance in the 1848 government, surrounded by fellow ministers and the Prime Minister, Lajos Batthyány (1807–1849). Hence, Horvay emphasised Kossuth’s parlamentarism instead of his revolutionary leadership, but this led to the awkward issue of having to centre him, while turning Prime Minister Batthyány, himself a much revered martyr of the Revolution, into a subordinate figure. This, as well as the lethargic poses of the figures were noted by the contemporary press, which did not spare its criticism.
The third monument set up on Kossuth Square was no less strange. Inaugurated in 1934, it commemorated István Tisza (1861–1918), Hungary’s Prime Minister 1903–1905 and 1913–1917.
Tisza was a controversial figure. Although he had originally opposed the invasion of Serbia in 1914 – displaying remarkable foresight – he subsequently became a dedicated supporter of the war. Consequently, in the eyes of a large section of the public he was to blame for the suffering caused by the war and Hungary’s ultimate defeat. On 31 October 1918, during the democratic Chrysanthemum Revolution, he was assassinated by a group of soldiers who broke into his home. Hence, to the memory politics of the Horthy regime, he offered a perfect example of a victim of supposed left-wing violence. Nevertheless, the monument did not emphasise his martyrdom. Instead, the sculptor – again György Zala – imagined him as a robust, defiant figure, surrounded by representations of peace and war: to his left, a group of figures representing Hungarian Prosperity, and to his right a heroic soldier taking leave of his family. Curiously, the most prominent figure in the monument was not the Tisza statue, but the extravagantly shaped stone lion struggling with a snake on top of the Doric edifice that served as a backdrop to Tisza’s figure.
Finally, the fourth monument erected on Kossuth Square was the equestrian statue of Francis II Rákóczi (1676–1735), Prince of Transylvania and leader of an anti-Habsburg uprising in 1703–1711. Sculpted by János Pásztor (1881–1945) and unveiled in 1937, it proved to be the least controversial of all the stone and bronze inhabitants of Kossuth Square.
The Tisza monument was inaugurated under Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös (1886–1936, in office 1932–1936), now chiefly remembered for his open fascist sympathies and the alliances he formed with Mussolini and Hitler. Hungary was set on a trajectory that led it to take the wrong side in World War II. In 1945, when the war ended, Kossuth Square was still there, but much of what it represented was heavily compromised. The Tisza statue was toppled in the same year. In 1948, the rest of the monument was taken apart and set up in three different locations, where the original context became obscured. The Andrássy statue was also removed in 1945, but not for political reasons: all the bridges on the Danube had been blown up by the retreating Nazis, and space was needed to build a bridge at Kossuth Square. The original plan may have been to eventually reerect it, but with the Communist turn this was no longer a priority, to say the least. The Andrássy statue was melted down and the bronze was most probably used for the giant Stalin statue erected near the City Park in 1951. This was, in turn, toppled and dismembered by the revolutionary crowd in 1956.
Tisza and Andrássy were not positive figures in the Communist conception of history. Kossuth, however, was respected as a revolutionary and often instrumentalised as a political symbol. Nevertheless, the Kossuth monument was removed in 1950 and replaced, two years later, with another Kossuth monument. The problem with Horvay’s work was that it was too pessimistic. Communist cultural policy, especially during the totalitarianism of the 1950s, expected an optimistic belief in historical progress, and rejected both “futile” nostalgia for the past and scepticism about the future. The new monument, sculpted by Zsigmond Kisfaludy Strobl (1884–1975), represented Kossuth as a passionate orator and leader, surrounded by the people who rushed to fight for freedom following his call. Hence, the minister Kossuth was now replaced with Kossuth the revolutionary.
Kossuth Square soon had its revolutionary moment: during the 1956 Revolution large demonstrations took place here, and on 25 October many protesters died after the State Security Police shot into the crowd from the rooftops. During the next decades, the square came to be populated by additional monuments. A statue of Mihály Károlyi (1875–1955), central figure of the Chrysanthemum Revolution was erected in 1975 (sculptor: Imre Varga, b. 1923); a statue of the poet Attila József (1905–1937), sitting “By the Danube”, as in one of his most famous poems, was unveiled in 1980 (sculptor: László Marton, 1925–2008). After 1989, new heroes appeared: a statue of Imre Nagy (1896–1958), martyr prime minister of the 1956 Revolution, was erected in close proximity of Kossuth Square in 1996 (sculptor: Tamás Varga, b. 1953). Monuments from different times coexisted peacefully for two decades, providing an interesting tableau of twentieth-century memory politics changing through time.
After coming into power in 2010, the government led by Viktor Orbán decided to restore Kossuth Square to its 1944 state. The project fitted into the official historical narrative promoted by the government, according to which Hungary had lost its independence in 1944 with the Nazi German invasion, and only truly regained it in 2010. In the next few years, the Károlyi and Imre Nagy monuments were removed (the Károlyi statue was reerected in Siófok, the birthplace of its sculptor, while the Nagy statue was transferred to Jászai Mari Square in Budapest). The Attila József statue was moved to a different location on Kossuth Square. Kisfaludy Strobl’s Kossuth monument was replaced with a copy of Horvay’s (the original had been set up in the town of Dombóvár after its removal in 1950). The Tisza and Andrássy statues have been reerected too, but as they had been destroyed they had to be resculpted and recast: their present versions are close imitations, but not exact copies of the originals. The only constant is the statue of Rákóczi. A new addition is a memorial to the victims of the 1956 shootings.
What does Kossuth Square tell us about the Fidesz government’s approach to the historical past? The reconstruction project is certainly an example of centrally directed memory politics, which provided an opportunity to remove left-wing figures such as Károlyi and Nagy and reinstall right-wing ones like Tisza, while promoting a historical narrative favoured by the government and the positive reevaluation of the Horthy regime that forms a part of this. That said, it is a more or less mechanical reconstruction, which makes it difficult to attribute any further meanings to its individual elements. Was there, for instance, any additional reasoning behind changing Kisfaludy Strobl’s “optimistic” monument to Horvay’s “pessimistic” one? Most probably not. In its approach, the Kossuth Square project is similar to the ongoing reconstruction of the Buda Royal Palace: it recreates the past as a spectacle, holding on its forms, but not to the layers of meanings that had settled on it during the last hundred years.
The figures from Kisfaludy Strobl’s Kossuth monument are now on view at a new location, in the park around the National University of Public Service, an institution founded in 2012. Instead of recreating their original, linear grouping, in which three figures on both sides gestured towards Kossuth, the statues are now arranged behind Kossuth in a haphazard way, with the female figure actually turning her back to the revolutionary leader, as if she was trying to stop the others from following him.
The reasoning behind this – if any – is unknown. One thing is, however, certain: although monuments are often created in a style that makes them seem anachronistic in an artistic sense, they do, nevertheless, always acutely reflect and shape the political atmosphere of their time.
This post was written with the help of two brilliant, crowdsourced public databases: Köztérkép, a site that documents the history of public sculptures and monuments in Hungary, and Fortepan, a collection of photographs from Hungary’s past.