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When I was 13 years old, I watched communism fall apart on live TV. Simultaneously, the dominoes that had been aligned across Europe, Asia and Africa began to fall, but not as many in the United States had feared. There was no Red Scare, instead, average people around the world, realized they were better off under the opportunity of freedom than being slaves to a government. When we came to Hungary, I knew I wanted to take a Hammer and Sickle Tour of Budapest communism sites.
Our Hammer and Sickle Tour was a lesson in Hungarian history as much as it was a Budapest communism tour. The tour begins with the Magyar (as Hungarians are known) history – how they came to this region from Asia about 7,000 years ago. The early Magyars were a matriarchal society, worshiping the mother (a move which helped them adopt Catholicism many generations later under St. Stephen).
But the history of Hungary is one of domination: they were conquered by the Mongols, then the Turks, followed by an Islamist state, then the Hapsburg’s of Austria, then the Germans during World War II and finally the Soviet Union. Hungary hasn’t had an easy time of it.
During World War II, Hungary was allied with Germany and ruled by homegrown fascists: the Arrow Cross Party. Despite a rich Jewish history in Hungary, the nation helped the Germans with their Holocaust plans and the regime ruthlessly dealt with dissenters within the country. Thousands died during the bloody regime.
After the war, major leaders in the Arrow Cross Party were tried for war crimes – the rest became communists. So when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1945 to “liberate” the nation, they never left. A ruthless occupation force was left in place and the country existed under the iron fist for over a decade.
The Hungarian people never adapted to totalitarian rule…or communism. In 1956, a homegrown Hungarian “Revolution” erupted and the peaceful protests were put down outside Parliament on Bloody Thursday. An estimated 3,000 Hungarians died in the protests.
While the initial Soviet response was a total crackdown on the country, eventually the Soviet occupiers eased up on restrictions and a form of “Goulash Communism” was put into place by János Kádár, the leader of the Hungarian Communist Party. Goulash Communism saw an easing of restrictions, some free-market opportunities and a better treatment of citizens. It’s only logical that when the first cracks appeared in the Iron Curtain during the summer of 1989, it happened in Hungary.
The Hammer and Sickle Tour starts at the Discover Budapest building. A replica communist-era apartment is set up in the basement. While this could be cheesy, it was quite spooky and like a time warp. We absolutely felt like we had traveled back in time to the 1960s Eastern Bloc.
Our guide was László Lóránt (or in Hugnary because the flip the order of the names, it is family name followed by first name, so he would say: Lóránt László). László explained the life of a typical family in communist Hungary: the children were brought into youth indoctrination programs, they lived in very modest housing without many conveniences available in the West (unless they were Communist Party officials and then they lived lavish lifestyles), all members of the family were expected to work in the system and there were few opportunities available to them.
And everywhere, the watchful eyes and ears of the Party kept tabs on everyone. Children were encouraged to turn their parents in for even the most minor of Communist Party infractions.
As our Hammer and Sickle Tour walked out under the blue skies of Budapest, the sun was casting long shadows through the city. During our short walk to Liberty Square, we talked casually with our guide László about all kinds of topics relating to Hungary and communism: red stars, Santa Claus as a communist symbol, and the importance of water polo to the Hungarian people.
When we arrived at Liberty Square, we were confronted with monument littered in leaflets and protests. This is the relatively new World War II/German Memorial. Many in Budapest believe that the imagery (e.g., the German Eagle) distances Hungary from what happened during the Holocaust. In other words, it’s putting all the blame on Germans and denying Hungary’s role. We understand how some might take it that way, but that was not our opinion after seeing the memorial.
The comparisons between fascism and communism are often easy to make. At their root, both systems employed brutal techniques to keep citizens in line. As we passed the former Lenin Institute and several other important Soviet-era buildings, we heard about some of techniques (many are too gruesome to write here) that the regimes used to keep control.
But the fascist-communist comparison is worth making: 11 million people died at the hands of the Germans during World War II and the Holocaust (including over 6 million people of Jewish heritage). In contrast, communism killed between 85-100 million during the 20th century (including 15-25 million by Joseph Stalin alone).
We both walked away from The Hammer and Sickle Tour feeling grateful we did not have to live under the suffocating oppression of communism. Over the last few years in the U.S. there’s been a renewed interest in the ideas of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. This Budapest communism tour shows the natural outcome of those ideals.
Budapest was the beginning of the end for communism in Eastern Europe. We really enjoyed the educational Hammer and Sickle Tour and felt it provided the historical context for our visit. We’d recommend the tour for visitors to Budapest.
After the tour, it’s worth visiting Memento Park, to see what became of of all the iconic communist statues in Budapest.
During our trip to Budapest, we were the grateful guests of JayWay Travel, providers of tailor-made tours in Central & Eastern Europe. As always, all opinions of the Hammer and Sickle Tour Budapest, as well as communism in general, are our own.