by Rob Harding
Well folks, these last few weeks your humble correspondent has been travelling around Eastern Europe on a hastily-booked last chance tour. I’m four cities in and thought I’d share a little of the mood on the street from Warsaw, Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Part two of this article looks at Vienna and Budapest.
On the 1st of July the results of the worryingly close Austrian election in early 2016 were overturned by a high court judge. The election, which saw the leader of the far right ‘Freedom party’ defeated by just one percentage point by the former leader of Austria’s Green Party, was contested by the Freedom Party (quelle surprise) on the grounds that postal votes had been improperly and illegally handled. Another general election will now be held in October.
On our first day a pro-Kashmir protest ambled past, escorted by impassive Austrian police and consisting of about sixty men chanting and waving signs. Nobody paid them much mind. A much noisier protest by ‘Die Anti-Fleisch Front’ was going on in the town centre, a dozen people carrying a banner behind a transit van blasting loud music, again with a somewhat smaller police escort. Protest and activism in Vienna is evidently alive and well.
Austria is in a weird place politically. Leaving aside the bids for far-right leadership, the country has produced strident resistance to Turkey’s so-far-doomed attempts to join the EU, but Vienna is splattered liberally with anti-fascist posters and graffiti. Austria is closer than most countries to an unpleasant political reality that threatens to undo decades of progress and tolerance.
Approaching Budapest from the airport in July 2015, it was hard to miss the huge white-on-blue sign reading ‘SORRY ABOUT OUR PRIME MINISTER.‘ The signs are gone now, but the feeling behind them hasn’t abated. A controversial monument to the Hungarian victims of the 1944 German invasion and occupation was installed under cover of darkness in July 2014 following immense public protest and controversy. The monument depicts a Hungarian Angel being attacked by a huge metal German Eagle, which is seen as attempting to whitewash the role of Hungary’s wartime government in complying with the Nazis, in particular their four years of wartime alliance and fascist groups like the Arrow Cross that operated in the country during the conflict.
it was hard to miss the huge white-on-blue sign reading ‘SORRY ABOUT OUR PRIME MINISTER.‘ The signs are gone now, but the feeling behind them hasn’t abated
The Prime Minister they’re sorry about, Viktor Orban, has claimed that the statue is ‘morally precise and immaculate’, which is presumably why it had to be protected by nearly a hundred policemen while it was being installed at midnight and why it’s now festooned with pictures of holocaust victims and banners calling it a ‘Forgery of History.’
Hungary’s national museum presents a more balanced look at the events of the Second World War but still claims that Hungarians did all they could to avoid deporting their Jewish population before rapidly moving on to descriptions of Gestapo cruelty, only briefly mentioning the role of Hungarian fascists in the atrocities.
Monumental warfare is big in Budapest. The monument to the Soviet wartime dead (who died ‘liberating’ Budapest from its German and Hungarian defenders) is now a stone’s throw from the new US embassy, and is watched by an avuncular and understated statue of Ronald Reagan in the street nearby. Reagan, in turn, is walking away from a metal bridge made of tank tracks that arches across a small pond towards the Hungarian parliament, which hosts a smiling statue of Imre Nagy, the moderate Communist leader at the time of the Hungarian Uprising.
It’s the 70th anniversary of that uprising this year, and Hungary still bears the scars. An excellent exhibition at the National Museum chronicles the artwork and graffiti that emerged from the Uprising, in particular the works of anti-Soviet artistic rebellion which have only come to light after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Elsewhere, metal studs mark bullet holes near Parliament, an old Soviet tank menaces the museums and a Polish-Hungarian exhibit in a city park has accounts of both countries’ time in the Warsaw Pact – a history of oppressions, invasions and general Soviet shenanigans.
While at a glance Budapest is an up-and-coming party city full of British tourists and party boats, there’s increasing tension in the courtyards and squares
Other scars of the period remain unhealed. The country is one of the nations in the ongoing refugee crisis, with stories of police brutality against refugees and what Al Jazeera describes as a ‘border war’. Refugees aside, Budapest is experiencing a housing shortage, one partly caused by skyrocketing rents in the capital that the perpetually struggling Forint has been unable to keep up with. Budapest’s cosmopolitan international atmosphere has been bringing money in, but many who’ve been renting flats since the government began nationalising them in the early 1990s are having trouble keeping up and there are many old people homeless on the streets. While at a glance Budapest is an up-and-coming party city full of British tourists and party boats, there’s increasing tension in the courtyards and squares as Hungary tries to determine it’s post-communist identity.
From Budapest we’re heading south into the Balkans, starting off in Croatia. Check back soon for a brief missive on the Dalmatian Coast tourist traps, the sleepy squares of Zagreb and the roses of Sarajevo.
Read Part 1 here.
Featured Image: ironman.com
All other images courtesy of Rob Harding.