The weekend after the Fourth of July our class took a trip to Budapest, a city known for its beauty, and less for troubled past. As we strolled along the Danube, I could not help but be dazzled by the city’s grandiose, ornate buildings. Equally breathtaking was the river of glistening currents, together living up to the city’s reputation.
On our way to yet another example of Budapest’s picturesque architecture, the Hungarian Parliament Building, I noticed something peculiar:
Yes, there were two different street signs for the street we were on, but one of them was crossed out with a red diagonal line. When I brought this to our professor’s attention, he informed me that this binomial practice used to be commonplace in Budapest until recently, and that the city has now taken down most of the old street signs.
This now rare remnant from Hungary’s recent past stirred up my curiosity. I immediately took a picture of it so I could investigate the story behind it later. And it turns out, that the newer street name, Wekerle Sándor, is the name of a Hungarian politician from early 20th century who served three times as Prime Minister. His political career was later cut short by the establishment of a communist state in the aftermath of WWI; he was held prisoner as a hostage, as were many others from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Unfortunately, due to the poor quality of the picture I could not discern the other name that had previously graced the street. But it is not hard to guess that it must have been connected to either of the two regimes of terror Hungary experienced last century, the Nazis or the Communists, the past the new Hungary wishes to dissociate itself from. The city’s decision to rename its streets speaks of its determination to actively renounce its times of darkness, by reconnecting with its past glory as once a ruling empire. Such appropriation of the imperial imagery in promoting national pride was also vastly evident in the Parliament Building draped in royal splendor.
In a few years, or even months, the older street sign probably will follow the fate of others that had already been removed from the public view. Renaming the streets whose names once embodied authoritarianism is a way of correcting the past; it denounces the perpetrators and honors the victims of the two regimes of terror. But one question remains: Does removing the old signs send a stronger message than denouncing them with a red mark? In other words, is rendering these signs of its troubled past altogether invisible a better option than having them visible and alive, but corrected? This was one of the many thought-provoking questions that continued to guide our discussions.