Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Terror In Budapest

A visit to the former headquarters of the communist secret police

Greetings from Budapest. I arrived here around noon on Thursday, crashed for a couple of hours, then met my friend Anna for a quick walk around town. She took me to this library near my hotel. She used to study there when at university:

And by the way, this is a local beer here, and I’m thinking about walking in and demanding a family discount:

But seriously.


Anna took me to the House of Terror, one of the most extraordinary museums I’ve ever been to. It is located in the headquarters of the former communist secret police. The museum is devoted to the Hungarian victims of fascism and communism. The building was used first by the Arrow Cross (Hungarian fascists) as party headquarters, then, from 1945 to 1956, by the communists as secret police headquarters.

It takes your breath away to see the propaganda from both the fascists — the Arrow Cross movement installed by the Nazi occupiers in October 1944, and then their communist successors, who ruled the country until 1989, and to imagine what it was like to have to live with that. The museum has real artifacts from the police state terror. The general point is that Hungary exchanged one terror state for another.

From an informational handout in the exhibit about Hungary in the 1950s:

Finally in 1947 when the international political situation seemed favourable, the Communist Party began to introduce an open and total dictatorship in Hungary. Torture and intimidation became part of everyday life. When the communists became concerned that their desired objectives were not being achieved quickly enough, the Soviets intervened. On February 25th, the communists abducted Bela Kovacs, General Secretary and MP of the Smallholders Party, to the gulag in broad daylight.

The worst is the basement, where prisoners were kept and tortured. It is the most evil place I’ve ever been in all my life. I was not prepared for it. The bleakness, and the sense of a spiritual vacuum. Of defilement. I began to gag involuntarily, and tears came to my eyes.

“You know, the Romanian communist prisons were worse,” said Anna, whose grandfather suffered in these cells.

Cell at the Terror House

From the handout at the beginning of the exhibit. The AVO is the acronym for the secret police:

Interrogations took place in upstairs rooms. Armed AVO-men stood guard before each room. Interrogations — in line with Soviet practice — were usually held at night. Suspects were prevented from sleeping for several nights, and in many cases were held without food and water. They employed every possible method of physical and psychological pressure on their victims. Facing the wall with their noses rammed against it, or with arms stretched out horizontally, sometimes for 10-12 hours. Beatings with truncheons were everyday affairs, as well as “physical exercises”; some were tortured with electric current [I saw the machine and the wires used for this — RD], burning cigarettes, pliers. Detainees were not permitted to change their underwear, nor to take a bath, their daily ablutions could last a mere thirty seconds; they were not allowed to use towels, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, tooth brushes, handkerchiefs. Prisoners were kept in cells with a lightbulb shining day and night.

They weren’t given blankets, or a change of clothing. Often they were not allowed to go to the toilet, nor were there any buckets in the cells. Prisoners had to lie on wet plank beds, or sometimes even on the bare floor. Sadistic warders beat the detainees at every opportunity with rifle butts and truncheons. They were fed once a day, their ration a cupful of bean soup with 150 grams of bread, altogether 490 calories a day. Prosecutors, carefully chosen by the AVO, demanded exemplary punishments for the prisoners, already suffering from hunger, horrible cold, constant lack of sleep, as well as physical and psychological harassment. The judges, who also enjoyed the confidence of AVO, complied. (They were always paid very well.)

Those who survived the physical and psychological terror of the AVO were locked into prisons administered by the AVO as well, where they could expect the same treatment. The prisoners’ hands and feet were bound like in the Middle Ages. Some of them were in chains with an 18kg iron ball attached to their feet. They received hardly any medical treatment or medication. They were thrown into disciplinary confinement for the smallest mistake, or were horribly mistreated.

That was what it meant to live under communism. More:

In 1989, a lieutenant colonel in the AVO/AVH, Vladimir Farkas, described the work that he did with others in the AVO. Farkas admitted that the AVO pulled out fingernails during torture in an effort to get a confession and that when the AVO failed in what it set out to achieve, the Soviet MGB (State Security Police) was called in to achieve what the AVO had failed to do. Farkas admitted that men died as a result of torture including Istvan Ries, a member of the Social Democrat Party in Hungary. Farkas claimed that the motto of the AVO was “whatever it takes to make them confess”. In his statement, Farkas claimed that this included immersing a suspect in a vat of hydrochloric acid.

If you ever make it to Budapest, by all means to go the House of Terror museum. To its great credit, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán opened this museum in 2002 as a monument to the victims and as a lesson in recent history. It is extremely important that we remember what human beings can do to each other, and what it meant to live under fascism and communism.

After having walked through rooms filled with propaganda posters denouncing enemies of the people, and demanding their violent suppression, you can imagine why I reacted strongly to seeing this abomination in the hallway of a US public school, propagandizing on behalf of those who would crush anything and anyone who stands in their way of creating a progressive paradise. Look at the photo that leads this blog post. It’s from an exhibition at the House of Terror called “changing clothes.” It posits a Hungarian Nazi uniform to one of the Hungarian Communists. The leather jackboots are the same. Which is the point.