Why Everyone Should Visit The House of Terror in Budapest

By Abi King | Western Europe

Feb 02

Victims of the House of Terror portraitsI stand in the queue, a man turns me back.

I stand in another queue. Alone, in silence. Paperwork in one hand, a heap of clothing in the other, limp yet heavy like the body of a sleeping child. It’s cold outside.

I wait.

I queue.

I hand over my camera.

Related: Thermal Baths in Budapest: The Waters of Winter

Number 60 Andrássy Street, The House of Terror

Number 60 Andrássy Street has credentials that would wither estate agents into anthrax-laden dust. And they’re enough to make the rest of us weep and drop to our knees, wondering whether to just give up on this whole thing called the human race.

Number 60 Andrássy Street was once the Hungarian Headquarters for the Nazis. After their defeat at the end of WWII, it became the headquarters for the secret police of the totalitarian communist state. Now, finally, this former mansion on the Champs-Élysées-like boulevard functions as a museum, albeit one that draws criticism for its biased interpretation of crimes on Hungarian soil.

I wait in the queue and hear an old man sobbing, sobbing and sobbing, again and again on a video loop while receptionists chat to each other and horror sound effects filter down from another floor.

It’s a queasy, conflicted feeling I first experienced on a muddy hilltop on the outskirts of Krakow, shoes soaked in melting snow. The site of a former concentration camp (the one shown in Schindler’s List,) this hill was also the viewpoint for a bland international shopping centre, a splodge of simplistic yellows and reds amidst grey and grit-lined car parks.

A few teens used it as a shortcut and an older woman strode past, walking her dog. My presence there seemed absurd and I shivered back to my hotel, numbed in more ways than one.

The following day, I visited Auschwitz, where history hadn’t been cleared away; it hadn’t been reconstructed. It just stood. As it was. As it had been.

Here at 60 Andrássy Street, things are different. A lot of effort has been expended creating a multimedia experience that tries to fill in the gaps: the aching, inexplicable voids that history has left.

And it’s not interested in nuance. Nor self-reflection.

Hungary’s history during the 20th century does not make for pleasant reading. Part of the Habsburg’s Austro-Hungarian empire at the start of the century, its defeat in World War One stripped it of territory and, by the look of things in this museum, an enormous amount of pride.

When World War Two broke out, a democratic Hungary sided with Hitler and the Axis powers before entering into years of complex diplomacy within the maelstrom of the world’s deadliest conflict. Siding with Hitler yet trying to negotiate peace with the UK and US. Passing anti-semitic laws yet keeping Jews from the concentration camps. Aggression against Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, yet trying to keep the war from its doors.

It’s a fascinating, terrifying, deadly memoir of conflict and survival amid the howling storm of contrasting – and ultimately catastrophic – ideologies on both sides.

It was doomed to fail.

And it was doomed to fail. On learning of Hungary’s negotiations with the West in 1944, Hitler sent in his own troops, transported over 600 000 to the concentration camps and fought to the end against the Soviets in the siege of Budapest.

The whole period raises questions about the fight for freedom, appeasement, coercion, diplomacy, national pride, borders, identity and more…yet the museum itself addresses none of these. In fact, it barely mentions Hungary’s role throughout those years, only its losses.

But those losses, Hungary’s losses, were staggering. Ten percent of the population dead – and occupation by the Soviet Red Army.

Within two years, democracy had gone. So had the leaders of the opposition.

The House of Terror launches a scathing account of the Stalinist years. Reconstructed interrogation rooms. Twisted agricultural policy. Deportation accounts. Old uniforms. The gulag. Bread shortages. Old photographs. Paranoia. Betrayal. The disruption of religious life.

It’s a stifling amount of information that’s difficult to sift through in one go. And it’s certainly the most damning view of life behind the iron curtain I’ve seen so far during my #ironroute journey.

A guard directs me to a lift.

The doors slam, the lights go out, and the machine screeches slowly towards the basement. In the shadows, a prisoner is led along an underground corridor, his final footsteps before his state execution.

The doors open into clawing darkness and a stench of urine. It’s the same corridor, the same cells, the same short walk to the scaffold.

I begin to feel sick.

Later, back in daylight and pacing along the frosted pavement, surrounded by leafy beauty and resplendent buildings, my mind feels uneasy again.

It hovers on the power of place and reality in trying to come to terms with the crimes of the past. It hovers on freedom of speech, capital punishment, genocide and fear. It realises for the first time that a part of me is grateful for our current Prime Minister. And even the tabloid press. And even the ill-informed criticisms about my own work.

Disturbing thoughts indeed.

I’m out of breath by the time I reach the Hungarian Parliament Building.

I stand in the queue, a man turns me back.

I stand in another queue. Alone, in silence. Paperwork in one hand, a heap of clothing in the other, limp yet heavy like the body of a sleeping child. It’s cold outside.

I wait.

I queue.

I hand over my camera.

I get to keep it. They hand it back.

Photos of the Parliament Building to follow.

This post forms part of the #ironroute journey from Istanbul to Berlin by train with InterRail.

House of curtain terror 2

House of terror iron curtain 3

Iron curtain sign - it took away our freedom

Iron curtain house of terror 5

Finally we tore it down - iron curtain logo in Budapest


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Jeremy Branham says:

    I never had the chance to visit this when I went to Budapest (I think I spent too much time in Szechenyi!) although I did experience a little of the horror there with a visit to a Gulag camp. Hard to believe things like this happened.

    • Abi says:

      Well, I’m still not sure whether Szechenyi was the better choice…I have mixed feelings about places like this. Having said that, I wish I had visited a gulag camp as well. Mixed indeed…

  • Sophie says:

    Giving up on the human race… yeah, if I were god, I’d have serious doubts about the success of that particular experiment.

    • Abi says:

      Perhaps I sounded too gloomy…but looking back at history, most of it seems so brutal and so unpleasant. And of course, that’s still the situation in much of the world today…

  • Lane says:

    Horrifying. Unimaginable. We didn’t make it to the House of Terror in Budapest. Perhaps its best we didn’t after seeing the Jewish Quarter in Prague — it left us speechless.

    • Abi says:

      Hmmm…I think perhaps the argument at the heart of it all (or at least in my head) is whether it is better to commemorate events like this or not? To remember so that the same does not happen again…Or to forget, so as not to build up the kind of resentment and vengeful thinking that made it happen in the first place…Or…

  • A life we all should be thankful we did not have to live

    • Abi says:

      That’s a wonderful comment. One I should think of more often…

  • What’s disturbing is Hungary’s apparent move to the right (e.g., http://bit.ly/AhMTV8).

    The one thing I’ve learned from time spent in Germany is : “learn from this, learn from us – don’t do this again – nie wieder (never again).” In Berlin’s Memorial to Murdered Jews in Europe, the museum underneath offered a different approach and focused less on facts or details. Instead, the displays showed several family timelines, how individuals lived normal lives (just as they would today), and the subsequent and abrupt halt and destruction of entire families. It’s horribly frustrating to see how in recent history we’ve had this remarkable ability to annihilate one another.

    Thanks again for your post, Abi.

    • Abi says:

      I agree, it is horribly frustrating to see that humans continue to come up with ways to annihilate populations. Any swing to extremes is disturbing – and the link you posted was an interesting one – although chilling.

  • Jenna says:

    A powerful post about what must be a powerful place. You mentioned that this museum was the most scathing criticism of the Soviet Union you have seen. The absolute hatred of communism and the Soviet Union was something i heard from the people all the time in the former Soviet bloc in the 90s. I think time has started to soften some of it. Did you find anything similar to this museum or its criticism of communism in Prague?

  • Abi says:

    That’s really interesting to hear. I actually spent the evening with a young woman from Budapest after having visited both this museum and the Parliament Buildings in the same day. She said she’d never been (to the House of Terror) and was a little non-plussed about why I would be asking about it. I worked out afterwards that there was a difference of about ten years between us…I was at school when the walls came down; she was born soon afterwards.

    In Prague, there is a museum dedicated to communism (and it’s certainly not complimentary) but it focuses a little more on the ideas and ideals behind communism. It also continues beyond Stalin’s years (when many countries softened a little) and then right up to the Velvet Revolution when the (then) Czechoslovakia fought for its freedom.

    Berlin, at the end of the journey, was fascinating. I met many people who still have an intense hatred towards the Soviet Union – whereas others long for the return of job security, a sense of community, belonging and access to universal healthcare.

    Perhaps a shorter version of this comment would be: more to follow!

    • Jenna says:

      Interesting. I can relate to your experience with the younger woman in Budapest. I often found that when I asked Czech people about communism, they were puzzled by why I would be interested and were often reluctant to talk about it. They really wanted to move on (this was in the mid-late 1990s). Others talked more openly about it, but in general it was not something they wanted to rehash.

      I have spent a lot of time in Prague but never went to the museum of communism. I should go next time.

      I find that whole area of Europe fascinating, so I’m looking forward to your next posts. :-)

  • Gretta says:

    I’ve never managed to visit this place, as I’ve always had my kids with me on trips to Budapest. I always feel that the city has brushed away its twentieth century past and doesn’t want to think about it, as shown by the young woman you met. But there are places that educate visitors about what happened, like this and the Jewish Museum and Memento Park, and it’s important that we don’t forget.

  • Abi says:

    I think you’ve made the right decision there, Gretta, this really isn’t a place for children. Perhaps the attitude towards 20th century history will change again after a few more years…

  • Nate @yomadic says:

    I found this museum an incredible experience. Very educational. I would recommend it to anyone, and there were a lot of children on the day I visited. Hungary certainly has a brutal 20th century history, and it’s important that people know just what humanity is capable of in its darkest hours.

  • John says:

    The cells in the basement were absolutely chilling. This is an important visit for anyone in Budapest to understand what the city went through.

  • Madaboutravel says:

    You’re so right! Anyone in Budapest should visit that place…

  • Angela nicholls says:

    I visited the House of Terror in April 14 – knowing it was were my father ( a Hungarian MP 1947-49) had been held and tortured. Visiting the cells was a very surreal moment for myself and my daughter. He was one of the lucky ones who got out alive – but reading his memoirs revealed people with him were not so lucky.
    Museums like should never die.

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