Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Statue Park

Hungary had always been an irritant in the Communist system. Hungary had allied itself with Germany and the Axis during World War II, and as a result of the Yalta Agreement of 1945, it found itself within the zone of Europe under Soviet control. Stalinism took on a particularly ruthless form in Hungary, leading to the 1956 Uprising, which was brutally put down by Soviet tanks on the streets of Budapest. Despite this, the Hungarians kept pushing for reform and although political opposition was not tolerated, Communism in Hungary (known as "Goulash Communism") was always a little "different" than in the rest of the Soviet bloc.

Years later, Hungary precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall, the decline of the Soviet regime and the end of the Cold War. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had set loose yearnings for change throughout Eastern Europe, and both Hungary and Poland were experiencing rapid drives toward Western models of democracy. In February 1989, unprecedented round-table talks were held between the ruling socialist government and the opposition parties. By May of 1989, Hungary decided to dismantle the barbed wire from its border with Austria, and East Germans began flowing to West Germany through the newly opened border. At first, the exodus from East Germany was a trickle - a few citizens sneaking across the border, a few others seeking asylum at the West German Embassy in Budapest. Soon, however, East Germans were filling West German embassies in Prague, Warsaw, and East Berlin. By late August, thousands of East Germans were camped in Budapest.

The flow grew into a frenzied exodus by the end of September, when Hungary totally threw open its borders. The Hungarians had declined to send the refugees home by force and, in a decision announced on September 10, 1989, Budapest said it would let the emigres go to the West in defiance of a 1967 agreement with East Berlin to prevent East Germans from doing so without East Berlin's authorization.

Hungary's decision marked a momentous breach in Eastern European unity. For the first time, a Communist government decided that international covenants on human rights were more important than treaties with other Warsaw Pact nations.

The gates were open. Meanwhile, Gorbachev said that East Germany had to decide its own future, signaling to many that Soviet troops would not interfere. Eventually, more than 30,000 East Germans swept into West Germany through Hungary. In all, more than 200,000 left East Germany since the exodus began.

On October 7, 1989, The Hungarian Communist Party, which had ruled the country since the 1956 Uprising, formally disbanded, and on October 17, the Parliament rewrote the constitution to allow a multiparty system and adopted laws allowing free elections in 1990. That year, the Democratic Hungarian Forum won the election and Jozef Antall became the first Prime Minister to be elected in Hungary as part of a democratic process.

In 1991, Budapest's City Council decided to gather in one place 41 Communist monuments which had formerly occupied prestigious locations throughout the city. The park where they can be viewed is now a popular tourist attraction for visitors who are curious about the recent past. The park even has a souvenir shop which sells fabulously kitsch Communist memorabilia, such as statues, pins, CDs of revolutionary songs and t-shirts.

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