“Behind the Iron Curtain” is a phrase familiar to Americans past the age of 40. Any trip into the Untours of Prague or Budapest will surely stir up those blunted, but not forgotten, images. Yet today, Budapest, with its broad boulevards and luxurious spas, often dubbed the little Paris of central Europe, seems a far cry from that grim image.
How then does a visitor reconcile the two versions? Central Europe is into its third decade of non-Communist rule. It would be more pleasant, perhaps, to celebrate its Renaissance, and ignore the darker decades. Yet, the thinking traveler may wrestle with the superficiality of drawing a complete ‘happy face’ curtain across such a significant, and recent, portion of a nation’s history.
Budapest has stepped up to this dilemma, with a startling museum that explicitly focuses on the crimes and atrocities committed by both Hungary’s Fascist and Stalinist regimes. The permanent exhibition is entitled Double Occupation. This museum is called House of Terror. Sounds like a kitschy tourist attraction for uninformed tourists, right? That’s what it sounded like to me.
Perhaps most starkly of all, is a giant steel blade projecting from the roof that holds the word ‘TERROR’ cut out as a stencil, and ornamented with the arrow-cross of the Hungarian Fascists and a Communist star. The sun shines through the stencil and the shadow of terror literally moves across the ground beneath on each day.
Not for the faint of heart. Rick Steves calls it “one of the most powerful museums in Europe.”
The last two rooms — with the only color video clips — show the historical and jubilant days of the Velvet Revolution in 1991 when the Soviets departed, and Hungary moved toward democracy.
A Lonely Planet review says it well: ‘A moving and powerful experience. Excellent use of multimedia: text, lighting, objects, sound, all well-designed. If you live in a country with a stable, open and safe democratic government, this museum will help you take that less for granted for a long, long time.’