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The Relocation of Imre Nagy’s Statue Draws Controversy

Ábrahám Vass 2019.01.08.

In December, the parliamentary committee in charge of major memorial sites (KNEB), led by House Speaker László Kövér, signed off on the reconstruction of Vértanúk (Martyrs’) Square near the Parliament. The project involved the relocation of a memorial depicting Imre Nagy, Hungary’s controversial prime minister during the 1956 revolution. 

About Imre Nagy, the martyred prime minister

Imre Nagy, a muscovite communist, was a key politician following World War II. Although he belonged to the party’s inner circle, he was often critical of party leader Mátyás Rákosi. After Stalin’s death in 1953, he became prime minister and supported agricultural development instead of forced industrialization, closed the internment camps and rehabilitated a number of political convicts. His policy reforms did not last for long as Rákosi returned from Moscow in 1955 to reclaim his position as leader of the party. Shortly thereafter, Imre Nagy was accused of “right-wing deviation” and forced to resign. On the second day of the 1956 revolution, Nagy became prime minister once again, but his second term ended with his government being brought down by the Soviet invasion, resulting in his execution on charges of treason two years later. He was buried face down in an unmarked grave and Soviet-backed János Kádár forbid anyone to speak his name. Since the change of regime, Imre Nagy’s personality and legacy have been a point of contention. Leftist philosopher Miklós Tamás Gáspár once said: “Nagy was guilty, a hero and a victim at the same time. Understanding this means understanding the tragedy of the labor movement and the Hungarian people.” In 1989, his reburial drew a crowd of 250,000 and is regarded as a springboard for Viktor Orbán’s political career.

The famous statue of Imre Nagy

The life-size bronze statue—inaugurated one day before the 100th anniversary of Nagy’s birth—on 6 June 1996, is a work by Hungarian sculptor Tamás Varga. It stands on a bridge and looks towards the Parliament. The symbolism is clear: the martyred Prime Minister’s statue was placed on the Martyrs’ Square to remind his successors to hold the interest of the nation above all else, even at the expense of their lives.

photo by varosikurir.hu

The relocation of the statue

The leader of the Steindl Imre Program (SIP), Tamás Wachsler, claims that Vértanúk Square should be restored to how it was prior to the demolitions at the end of the Second World War. Inaugurated in 1934 and demolished in 1945, this was where the National Martyr’s Memorial, which commemorated those who perished during the short but tragic period of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (Tanácsköztársaság) in 1919, stood. This memorial is now—as part of Vértanúk square’s renovation—planned to be reconstructed via contemporary photos and documents, Wachsler claims. Therefore, according to the government’s plan, Nagy’s statue would be moved to Jászai Mari tér.

This is not the first time a Fidesz-led government has attempted to relocate the statue. When news of the potential removal was released in 2012, the project’s main backer, influential and wealthy businessman Sándor Demján, heavily criticized the move and threatened to withdraw his donation. Some speculate that Demján’s death last year might have played a role in the government’s timing.

National Martyr’s Memorial, which is now planned to be rebuilt on Vértanúk (Martyrs’) Square. Via Fortepan

Nevertheless, the plan has drawn controversy once again, as many see it as yet another example of Orbán trying to downplay the period between 1944 and 1990. According to the new Fundamental Law of Hungary, the country lost its sovereignty in March 1944 and reclaimed it in 1990. In a statement, Nagy Imre Society (NIT) insisted that the statue was in its rightful place because it symbolized both the path leading to democracy and Nagy’s life. Regarding the restoration of National Martyr’s Memorial, NIT said that “with its primitive symbolism, the statue that stood there for ten years is an artistically worthless piece of the neo-romance wave of the Interwar period.”

Imre Nagy’s grand-daughter, Katalin Jánosi, also expressed her fury in a Facebook post.

Dawn removal drew modest reactions

Probably due to anxiety over potential protests aiming to hinder the action, the statue was removed on the early morning of 27 December.

The removal of the statue. Image via Zsolt Szigetváry/MTI

The next day, MSZP, DK and Párbeszéd organized a joint demonstration in the former spot of the monument, joined by 200 protesters. Former SZDSZ and MSZP MP and 1956 freedom fighter Imre Mécs said that “We must bring Imre Nagy’s statue back here, and not for Imre Nagy, but for our honor and for the honor of the Hungarian nation!” Socialist politician Gergely Örsi went as far as saying that “Viktor Orbán only used Imre Nagy’s coffin as a stepping stone,” referring to Orbán’s famous speech at the 1989 reburial. Other opposition parties have remained silent thus far and seemingly do not wish to take a stand.

PMO chief Gergely Gulyás claimed “there is no problem with Imre Nagy,” and that the National Assembly’s only purpose is to restore the artwork of the period preceding the Nazi and Communist dictatorships.

According to Tamás Wachsler, the new memorial being built in Vértanúk Square is currently in the tendering phase and will be completed in 2019. While Imre Nagy’s statue will probably be reinstalled, following restoration, on the 16th of June (the anniversary of Nagy’s execution in 1958 and of his aforementioned reburial in 1989). Almost certainly, its new spot will be at Jászai Mari Square, a few hundred meters from the Parliament.

featured image via oktober23alapitvany.hu