Living Historicism

Katalin Sinkó

Edited excerpt of "A továbbélõ historizmus. A Milleniumi emlékmû mint szimbolikus társadalmi akciók szintere" (Living Historicism. The Millennial Memorial as a Stage for Symbolic Action), In: A historizmus mûvészete Magyarországon (Historicist Art in Hungary), Budapest, 1994, pp. 277-93. See Ilona Sármány-Parsons's review on pp. 24-30 of this issue.

The Millennial Memorial, erected in 1896 to celebrate one thousand years of Hungary's statehood, was the embodiment of what many a contemporary would have sworn was impossible: welding the various conflicting interpretations of power and the legitimacy of power advanced by Hungary's fiercely competitive political parties into the semblance of a balanced and unified whole. The completed work, at any rate, has a force and serenity suggestive of ideological unity.

At the focal point of the memorial, on a high pedestal, stand the equestrian statues of the seven conqueror chieftains, with Árpád center front. The group of seven is situated at the foot of a colossal column topped by the winged figure of the Archangel Gabriel; his one hand holds the apostolic cross, the other lifts the Holy Crown of Hungary above the chieftains. The central core of the memorial is, thus, the symbolic expression of two rival historical interpretations of legitimacy.

The one traditionally espoused by the nobility, traces the origins of power back to the historical constitutio of the seven chieftains, and in the final analysis, back to the pagan communitas. In keeping with pagan tradition, the chieftains had sealed the constitutio with their blood. They then elected Árpád to lead them, and his descendants were the first kings of Hungary. On this interpretation, thus, the origins of royal power go back to pagan times, and derive from the nobility; the foundation of all legitimate rule is the nobility's right to elect the king. Originally developed by Werbõczy in the sixteenth century, this doctrine gained ever wider popularity in the course of the nineteenth, and became one of the basic tenets of the party ideologies of its last few decades. The cult of Árpád came to epitomize the traditional anti-Habsburg sentiments of the Protestant gentry, who comprised the backbone of the opposition: the '48er and the Independence Parties. It also expressed the claims to Hungarian political hegemony, based on the historical rights of the conquering Magyars. The spread of the cult of Árpád and the ancient Magyars at the end of the century paralleled the cult of Wotan in Germany in those same years, and undeniably had certain racial overtones.

The debates in committee and in the House of Representatives over the form the memorial was to take suggest that it was as a result of pressure from the Independence Party representatives that Árpád and the chieftains came more and more to be the focal points of the memorial. The sculptor, György Zala, had initially planned to depict the chieftains without horses. "Let's not make foot soldiers out of the chieftains!", protested Kálmán Thaly, an opposition representative, and so Zala put horses underneath them. The completed memorial is, thus, unique among dynastic memorials: instead of the usual equestrian statue of the ruler, we have chieftains on horses at the center, with centuries of kings trooping behind them.

The other key ideological element of the memorial is the angel bearing the crown, a heavenly envoy floating above the group of conqueror chieftains. Formally, the motif corresponds to the angel on the "colonne de victoire" in Paris, except that instead of a laurel wreath, he holds the Holy Crown of Hungary, the symbol at the center of a complex constitutional theory by the time in question. Essentially, the entire theory boiled down to the following: king and nation, united in the Holy Crown, were the sole repositories of constitutional power. Power resided in the Holy Crown, an independent constitutional entity. On the organic view, the king was the head of the Holy Crown (Caput sacrae regni coronae), and the head and the limbs together composed the entire body of the Holy Crown (totum corpus sacrae regni coronae). The Hungarian Holy Crown doctrine was also the token of national independence and sovereignty, but, compatible as it was with Catholicism and the notion of empire, it was also susceptible to the Habsburg's imperial interpretation. Two rival theories found expression in the core of the Millennial Memorial, which, thus, becomes what it was meant to be: an effective demonstration of a fictional unity. The kings symbolizing the ten centuries that had gone by from the time of Saint Stephen to Franz Joseph never had but a temporary hold on the constitutional power embodied in the thousand-year-union of chieftains and crown, a power whose symbols at the apex of the work raise it, as it were, into the heights of eternity.

A national memorial placed between two museum buildings was an architectural type already known abroad: the Heldenplatz in Vienna, a modified version of the layout planned by Gottfried Semper, for example. But museums had been connected to memorials elsewhere as well. One of the earliest conjunctions of this kind was the Musée des Monuments Francais, where the garden surrounding the museum contains memorial stones dedicated to the great figures of French history. Another example of the conjunction of museum and memorial (Ehrenhalle) is the Grabhalle of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, and the Feldherrnhalle, constructed in the vestibule of the Viennese Arsenal. One of the best-known examples of this kind of juxtaposition is the Ruhmeshalle in Munich planned by Leo von Klenze, with Ludwig Schwanthaler's Bavaria memorial in front of the building. We can find similar conjunctions in Berlin, St Petersburg and Prague. On the Historicist interpretation, museums, too, are memorials, the repositories of the artifacts and relics of the national culture.

Albert Schickedanz, who designed both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Mûcsarnok (Exhibition Hall) on Heroes' Square, came up with a unique version of these antecedents. The design that was approved and then built - a free-standing, arced colonnade - both spans the space between the two museums and draws the eye to the view of the lake in the Városliget (City Park) just beyond. Structurally, the memorial is reminiscent of colonnaded Baroque altars.


Albert Schickedanz and György Zala: The central statues of the Millennial Memorial, with the equestrian statues of Árpád and the conquering chieftains; the kings' gallery is in the background, with the chariots of War and Peace on the top.

During the 1919 revolution, the statues of the Habsburgs in the kings' gallery of the memorial were toppled; the statue of Franz Joseph was sledged to smithereens. The symbolism of the revolutionary act was made clear by a photo published in the paper Érdekes Újság, depicting hundreds of the poor clambering up onto the bare gallery of the memorial. The caption reads: "The people have taken the place of the kings".

The removal of the Habsburg statues was the symbolic equivalent of banishing the Habsburg rulers from Hungarian history, and expressed the country's secession from the Monarchy. What expressed the ideology of the 1919 commune was the transformation wrought in the memorial by its decoration for the First of May - a transformation that would occur time and again throughout the post-war decades. In 1919, the first such occasion, a number of artists were commissioned to transform practically the whole city, and wrap entire buildings and memorials in red. The most expressive job of decoration was done on the Millennial Memorial. The kings' gallery, the chieftain statues, and even the crowning angel were all draped in red. The arcs of the kings' gallery were changed into two colossal red walls, whose puritanical decor bore the slogan: "Proletarians of the world, unite!". On the front-facing ends of the two massive red arcs, Béla Uitz's paintings of a worker and a peasant expressed the same idea in a monumental form. In front of the red obelisk that the angel-topped column had become stood a white sculpture of three figures: Marx embracing and uniting two representatives of the working class - a steel worker and a miner. The square, thus transformed, was meant to serve not just as a memorial to the proletarian revolution, but also as the framework of a symbolic space, a place where the crowds were not mere viewers, but active participants in a mass celebration. What was celebrated here through the artistic transformation of the Millennial Memorial was the symbolic destruction of history. We shall wipe out the past, they had sung in the Internationale, and the dream had become a palpable reality. The need to deny the nation's past was of a piece with the determination of the leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic to have done with the past as such.


The May 1, 1919 decor

The years following Trianon saw the re-emergence of the Holy Crown doctrine. Politicians and the press were wont to speak of the crown as of a living person or organism, using it to illustrate the wrong done to Hungary, and the absolute necessity of restoration and "resurrection". To quote the legal scholar Kálmán Molnár: "The realm held together by the Holy Crown has been dismembered, and the lopped off limbs of the Holy Crown's body are faint with the loss of blood; in a swoon, they await death or resurrection". The cult of the Holy Crown became deeply imbedded in the consciousness of society as a whole, not only as a result of rhetoric of this kind, but also due to the painful fact that there was hardly a family in Hungary that had not suffered some painful personal loss as a result of the war or Trianon.

The most important moment in the "restoration" of the Millennial Memorial came in 1929, when the National Memorial Stone for the Nation's Heroes (popularly known as the Cenotaph) was placed in front of the statue of Árpád. The simple stone slab, as unadorned as an archaic altar stone, was placed in the center of the square with the inscriptions "1914-1918" and "In Memory of the Thousand-Year-Old Borders". A cross-shaped sword topped the stone. The speakers at its unveiling drew a parallel between the heroism of the half a million soldiers who gave their lives in the war and the heroism of the conquerors. They, too, had heard "the chieftain Lehel sound the alarum"; "they, too, had been fired by the spirit of Álmos and Árpád". The juxtaposition of the Cenotaph and the Millennial Memorial elevated the site to the status of a national shrine, and that it has remained to this day.


The unveiling of the Nations' Heroes Memorial Stone.

The Eucharistic Congress of 1938 was the most splendid of the religious rituals revolving around the Millennial Memorial: on that occasion, the memorial served as the pedestal for the high altar. The arcs of the kings' gallery were united into one gigantic structure decorated with pictures of the saints of the Árpád dynasty centered around the image of Our Lady of Hungary. The ciborium of the altar, a copy of the ciborium at St Peter's in Rome, stood at the top of the structure, as high as the angel, expressive of the close relationship between the Hungarian State and the Church of Rome. The visual imagery and rhetoric of the Eucharistic Congress was, in essence, the Holy Crown doctrine bolstered by Catholic ritual. The reference to the mystical body represented by the Holy Crown built on the categories of Catholic dogma. As a contemporary observer noted: "The Holy Crown is not simply a representation of power, but its actual personification. To use an analogy: our Holy Crown is not unlike the Sacred Host, in which Christ is actually present, flesh and blood."

World War II was a turning point in the history of the Millennial Memorial. The statues of the kings' gallery had been damaged, which was one of the reasons why the Habsburg kings were removed once again. But the real, and more important reason was the official leftist rhetoric and view of history. For decades, the new régime stressed the discontinuity of the new state with the old. Only "progressive traditions" were accepted as integral parts of the nation's past. The place of the Habsburg kings in the Millennial Memorial was assigned to the heroes of the various national independence movements: to Rákóczi, Thököly and Kossuth, as well as to the Princes of Transylvania - most of them Protestants - who had worked to achieve sovereignty in defiance of the Habsburg Empire. They were presented as the forbears of the "republican" tradition, and the kings' gallery, originally a dynastic memorial, was transformed into a hall of fame honoring the nation's heroes. The transformation meant that the two essentially incompatible traditions of the Hungarian ideal, the legitimist and the republican, were inadvertedly reconciled.

No changes were made to the seven chieftains at the center of the memorial, and even the angel bearing the Holy Crown was left intact. This is all the more surprising in the light of the fact that the new régime had all the old seals and coats of arms removed and replaced with its own. The Cenotaph, on the other hand, was updated: the inscriptions referring to Trianon were removed, and the memorial was dedicated to the heroes of the two world wars. The square and the memorial remained a ritual site for mass state rallies.

The new political régime attempted to project its visual imagery and rhetoric onto the national memorial, and establish its legitimacy thereby. The decoration for the 1945 election rally emphasized words and downplayed images. After 1948, however, portraits came to predominate; the portrait of Mátyás Rákosi had the central place in front of the statue of Árpád, by way of underlining Rákosi's supreme leadership role. His portrait would be set at the same key spot for years. The modest decorations of the first few years grew ever more grandiose, and eventually completely blocked the statues of the memorial. In 1953, the site of the mass rallies was shifted to the vicinity of the recently-erected statue of Stalin, near the memorial. The fate of the Stalin statue is well known: the people toppled it in 1956.

In 1957, in the wake of the crushed revolution, the Millennial Memorial and Heroes' Square were once again used for political ends - this was where the huge May 1 rally was held. The VIP stand, with the portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin, was placed on the far side of the square, so that the crowd had to stand facing away from the Millennial Memorial, "turning its back on the past", as it were. The memorial's central pedestal with the statues of Árpád and the seven chieftains was surrounded by a Workers' Militia guard of honor, a closed phalanx ensuring the "untouchability" of the memorial's core. The crowds were made to turn away from the memorial in a gesture that signaled and symbolized the Kádár régime's determination to depoliticize the nation.


Rally held to mark the Eucharistic Congress of 1938.

From 1988 onward, the Millennial Memorial has been the site of a number of political demonstrations, and remains a popular spot in these times of transition. Every movement and political party whose aim it is to see its ideology become a part of the nation's consciousness has organized demonstrations here. Generally, mass events are meant to bring people together in a common cause, but obviously there are political differences that simply cannot be reconciled.

The funeral of Imre Nagy and his associates on June 16, 1989, was a prelude to the political changeover. The crowds that stood around the coffins of the martyrs were also laying to rest a phase of Hungary's history. As one of the orators put it: "This day is a milestone in a new era; we are burying a system that has proved an utter failure, a system that was forced upon us." The public avowal of the illegitimacy of the old political system paved the way for the legitimacy of the new. The martyrs had an important role in this, not only those resting in the coffins, but also those symbolically placed next to them. The Cenotaph in front of the chieftains group acquired a double: an empty coffin placed in the makeshift mortuary, the portico of the Exhibition Hall. The empty coffin played a ritual role. Since the location of the graves of the executed victims of the 1956 Revolution was then still unknown, this coffin symbolized their common grave. As the names of the victims were called out, marchers carrying torches answered for them: "Present", they called out, and threw the extinguished torches into the coffin. The row of coffins was placed to form the continuation of the heroes' gallery of the Millennial Memorial; the hand of the clock of Hungarian history moved from Lajos Kossuth to the modern-day heroes - Imre Nagy and his fellow martyrs. Traditional republican symbolism played a key role not only in the magnificent props (flags, the flame of liberty) but also in the movement stereotypes adopted by the crowds present at the funeral: in a classical gesture of the republican iconography, people joined hands and raised them toward the sky, swearing their determination to gain freedom.


May 1, 1957.
The crowd has their backs to the Millennial Memorial. Portraits of the canonized heroes of the workers' movement on the review stands across from the memorial. The Millennial Memorial is tightly surrounded by Workers' Militia.

On June 30, 1996, the Millenial Memorial will be the venue of yet another mass event. The group of seven chieftains, newly restored after years of neglect, will be unveiled in what will be a high point of the Millecentenary Commemoration of the Magyar Conquest.

Please feel free to send us your comments.
Take out your subscription now!
C3 Alapítvány