Destruction of Totalitarian Symbols, Budapest, 1956

National Széchényi Library

During the 1956 Hungarian revolution one of the primary concerns of the people of Budapest was to remove and destroy symbols of the repressive political regime. This exhibition documents this process.

War on Symbols
After the Second World War and especially, the establishment of the Hungarian People's Republic in 1949 new sculptures and monuments flooded Hungary celebrating the Soviet Union and the local communist regime.

"Dedicated to the Great Stalin by the Grateful Hungarian Nation," reads the inscription on the plinth of the sculpture, beneath the official symbol of the Hungarian People's Republic.

When the revolution broke out on 23 October 1956 monuments representing Communist rule or Soviet influence became natural targets of public rage.

The Soviet Union "brought salvation and liberation [...] But he could not bring freedom, because he himself did not have it" - as Hungarian writer, Sándor Márai observed in 1947. By many, Soviet military presence was seen as a threat to national sovereignty and in 1956 Soviet monuments were often damaged by protesters.

Red Stars, especially the ones that had emerged to be iconic imprints in the cityscape in the previous years, were often removed. Such actions kept firefighters busy to the great enthusiasm of the citizens.

Russians, Go Home
One of the primary demands of the protesters and revolutionaries of various kinds was that Soviet troops should leave the country.

This call addressed to the Hungarian Government and "Comrade" Imre Nagy demanded that Soviet troops should be immediately withdrawn: "After five days of terrible brotherly fight bloodshed should come to an end."

"Our Russian friends! Do not shoot at us! We are not Fascists! We are not Stalinists! We want an independent democratic Hungary! Do not shoot at us! Do not shoot at workers, peasants and intellectuals!" - says this flyer prepared by "The Revolutionary Hungarian Youth". Soviet soldiers were reportedly told that they were fighting Fascist counterrevolutionaries, and flyers were distributed among them (in Russian) to counter this image.

Call to Russian Soldiers in Radio Free Europe

Hungarian public opinion placed great trust in the United Nations, and it was widely expected that the UN will send troops or, at least, observers to the country. This flyer prepared by the University Revolutionary Committee, however, suggests that the UN would be just as an occupying force as the Soviet Union. There should be "Only Hungarian Soldiers on Hungarian Soil" - they proclaimed, and believed that the UN should support Hungary in economic terms instead.

Statue of Freedom
One of the first statues that was removed in 1956 was standing on the plinth of the Statue of Freedom at the top of Budapest's spectacular hill, Gellérthegy: a 4 meters high Soviet bronze soldier.

It took quite an effort to pull it down. Hungarian soldiers and civilians collaborated in the process.

The destruction of the statue started with huge hammers right after it was pulled down.

Soldiers climed up on the plinth and planted Hungarian national banners where the bronze soldier had stood before.

Monument of Soviet Heroes
The monument on Freedom Square in the very centre of Budapest was erected in 1946. This is the only significant Soviet monument that still exists today.

In 1956, the red star was removed from its top, just as the state eblem of the Soviet Union from its front side.

A cheerful crowd celebrates the removal of the totalitarian symbols.

This video shows and narrates how totalitarian symbols were pulled down or damaged.

The most significant statues from the State Socialist era that survived are to be found at the memorial site called Memento Park in the outskirts of today's Budapest. But it was not always like that. In 1956, Communist monuments were defining features of the urban landscape.

National Széchényi Library
Credits: Story

This exhibition and videos were created by the working group of the "Hungary 1956" digital humanities project at National Széchényi Library in collaboration with Google.

The Project (to be launched on 23 October 2016) is about creating a georeferenced online living archive of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution with a particular emphasis on its visual heritage (films and photos) by making advantage of GoogleMaps.

Creators would like to thank the MANDA Archive (http://mandarchiv.hu/), Fortepan (www.fortepan.hu), and the 1956 Institute (now integrated into the National Széchényi Library, see www.rev.hu) for supporting the Project. Their materials are used in these exhibitions and videos.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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