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Deconstruction is a term elaborated on by Jacques Derrida. It is a process of sequential genealogy of a certain phenomenon, disassembly of its structure in order to then, having reached the very foundation, reassemble the semantic core and reconsider the essence of the analyzed phenomenon. This exhibition aims to deconstruct a specific period of Hungarian history, a crucial one for understanding the social and political dynamics in the 20th century.


The main focus appears to be the regime transition from Miklós Horthy rule to the Ferenc Szálasi government that took part in 1944-1945. The term 'transition', – 'transit' – which formed the basis of the exhibition title, refers to the constant dynamics, to the liminality and borderline not only of the events described but also of the specifics of the challenging pages of 20th century history. The history of the Second World War still remains the arena of massive political debates and contestations in terms of various versions of history being used as a weapon of historical politics.


Our aim is to deconstruct the transition period, revealing multiple entanglements and controversies and opening up a conversation about the things that are either consigned to oblivion or highly ideologized. Derrida’s version of deconstruction is to subvert the established and intrinsic meaning of the phenomenon to expose the relations of power. The very process of deconstruction is a process of resistance. 

Visit our virtual exhibition

We offer the experience of an investigation of Hungarian history (1920-1945). Our exhibition was inspired by our experiences with the House of Terror, which prompted us to create this digital tour. Although it is chronologically sequenced, our tour can be approached in any preferred manner, allowing the audience to personalize their experience and (de)construct the proposed historical period in their own way. It allows one to delve into the sensitive and tangled history of political regime transit and subsequent occupation. Our digital tour will cover the historical period from 1920 to 1945 to provide more context and allow one to trace connections and continuities between the Horthy and Szálasi regimes. 

The exhibition is divided into two conceptual parts – one focusing on events, the other on uncomfortable past . On the one hand we focus on the careful handling of historical events and (often silenced) narratives. On the other hand, we aim to bring these narratives closer to life, defining their place in everyday life and presenting them from a human-centred perspective - the thread running through the entire exhibition is the cruelty and inhumane treatment of marginalized, excluded groups.

Section 1: Background

The modern state of Hungary emerged from the ashes of the First World War. Having been a constituent part of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary faced territorial loses at the hands of the Allies. Before such changes could be finalized, however, in 1919, a communist revolution took control of the Hungarian government, established a communist state, and attempted to reclaim Hungary’s pre-war borders. This short-lived regime was defeated on the battlefield in one of the final battles of the Hungarian-Romanian War. 


1. Portrait of Miklós Horthy, 1932,


2. Trianon negotiations, 1920,

The communist state was then succeeded by the Kingdom of Hungary in 1920, with former Admiral Miklós Horthy fulfilling the role of regent and thus filling the power vacuum that had been left after Bela Kun’s escape to Austria and the retreat of the Romanian occupation. In the months immediately following, the forces under Horthy’s command engaged in a brutal series of reprisals against those who had sided with the communist regime or who were perceived as having been aligned with it. 

This period, known as the White Terror, saw a targeting of Jewish people and communities in antisemitic acts of violence justified by a conflation of Bolshevism with Judaism. Such antisemitic tendencies were neither new nor uncommon to the region. However, the following decades would see a continual intensification of such attitudes with the government taking an increasingly active role in the persecution of these communities. 

3 .Miklos Horthy on a white horse, 1919, 
Filmhíradók Online

Section 2: 1938


Similar to other Central and Eastern European countries, Hungary had a thriving Jewish population in the Interwar period. Following the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 and the rise of nationalism it provoked, the Jewish population was seen as a convenient scapegoat. As a result, Hungary’s anti-Jewish policies were first put into motion under Miklós Horthy, who became the Regent of Hungary, and implemented the first elements of systemic economic discrimination against Jews. This discrimination was initially enforced with the Numerus Clausus Act of 1920, which limited the number of Jewish students able to enter higher education institutions. These discriminations continued over the next two decades, but it wasn’t until 1938 that more stringent legislation began to be introduced.


The new antisemitic policies were closely tied to the geopolitical developments outside of Hungary’s borders. Notably, the First Vienna Award, an agreement between Hungary, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, was signed in 1938. The day of the signing is documented in Exhibit 4, which shows Foreign Ministers Ribbentrop of Germany and Ciano of Italy signing the arbitration award at Belvedere Palace in Vienna. The goal of the First Vienna Award was the annexation of the lands Hungary had lost with the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, such as parts of Slovakia, southern Czechoslovakia back to Hungary.

After of the signing of the Award, Hungary followed the example set by Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws and implemented further anti-Jewish laws to confirm the alliance. As a result of this success, Hungarian anti-Jewish policies quickly worsened, and the speed at which they were being passed increased. May 1938 saw the expansion on the Numerus Clausus Act in the First Jewish Act, modelled on the  which restricted the number of Jews in select professions, such as journalism, engineering, or law. Exhibit 6 shows the announcement of this law by Prime Minister Daranyi, as reported in the newspaper Pesti Napló


4. First Vienna Award. Foreign Ministers Ribbentrop and Ciano signing the arbitration award at Belvedere Palace in Vienna, 1938, Europeana

5. Horthy shaking hands with Hitler at the Kiel station, 1938, MNM online katalógus

6. The newspaper in which Prime Minister Daranyi announces the first Anti-Jewish Law, 1938, Yadvashem

7. Horthy at the Berlin railway station, 1938, Filmhíradók Online

Section 3: 1939

1939 saw more ex-Hungarian territories, this time from Subcarpathia, were re-annexed by Hungary (exhibit 8). Moreover, in May 1939, the Second Jewish Act was passed (exhibit 9). The Act aimed to define Jews ‘racially’ by their ancestry: if more than two of an individual’s grandparents were Jewish, they, too, were declared a Jew. In addition to the Second Jewish Act, more serious freedom restrictions, such as the creation of the Jewish District and the beginnings of forced labor units started to be seen around Hungary.


7. Jews from Hungary at forced labor, year unspecified

Yad Vashem


9. Newspaper headline, reading: "Accepting the Second Jewish Law", 1939
Yad Vashem

8. Annexed territories on the map, 1939

With the reconstitution of Szalasi’s newly renamed Arrow Cross party and the Horthy regime’s alliance with Nazi Germany, anti-Jewish sentiments were at a concerning high throughout Hungary. These sentiments were the most apparent in the 1939 elections: the shift to the right that Hungary had been experiencing since the Great Depression, as well as the uncurbed rise of anti-Semitism, culminated in the Arrow Cross party earning the second-highest number of votes in the election.


10. Jews from Hungary at forced labor, year unspecified

Yad Vashem

Section 4: 1940-1942


August of 1940 saw Hungary re-annex parts of Northern Transylvania with the signing of the Second Vienna Award. Hungary joined the Berlin Pact (originally signed by Italy, Germany, and Japan), eventually sealing Hungary’s involvement in the Second World War on the side of the Axis Powers. 

Hungary declared war on the Soviet Union on the 27th of June 1941 and joined the Axis Powers in World War II. Along with the official declaration of war on the Soviet Union and the formal formation of the Axis Powers, Hungary began its first deportations of its non-Hungarian Jewish citizens. 


12. Horthy with Hitler, 1938
Wikimedia Commons

13. Horthy rides into Nagyvárad (Oradea, Romania), 1940

 József Horváth/Fortepan

Exhibit 14 shows Jewish citizens – largely those who were not ethnically Hungarian or could not readily prove their Hungarian citizenship – being deported to German-controlled city of Kolomyia in western Ukraine, from where they were then forced to march to Kamianets-Podilskyi where they were promptly executed in one of the earliest mass-executions of the Holocaust.


14. Jews being deported to Kamenets-Podolski, 1941

Yad Vashem


16. Hungarian troops in USSR in newsreel, 1941


15. Kamianets-Podilskyi, 1942

Section 5: 1944

Following the initial success of Axis forces in World War II, the tides turned against the fascist allies. By the beginning of 1944, the Red Army was moving through Ukraine and towards Hungary. As it approached and defeat became inevitable, the Horthy government reached out to the Allies to find out the chances of a possible surrender. In response—on 19 March, 1944—the German army occupied Hungary, in order to protect the interests of the German military. Horthy publicly accepted the German occupation and the Nazi forces faced no significant resistance. Following the occupation of Budapest, Prime Minister Kallay—who had sought to distance Hungary from Germany since his appointment in 1942—was replaced by Döme Sztójay, the choice of the Germans. 

17. The members of the Arrow Cross Party government. Szálasi is in the middle of the front row, 1944

Wikimedia Commons


This new administration aligned itself more closely with the Nazi position. With the participation of more than fifty thousand civil servants and hundreds of thousands of willing civilians, Hungary began to deport its Jewish population to Auschwitz. Only two hundred Germans stationed in Hungary were allocated to participate in this deportation; the vast majority of those responsible for undertaking the Holocaust here were Hungarian. Most of the deported Jews were killed at Auschwitz, thus every third Jewish victim murdered there was Hungarian. It remains to this day the largest Hungarian Jewish cemetery. In exhibit 22, you can hear the accounts of two holocaust survivors describe their experience of deportation. 

Additionally, from 5 April 1944, all Jewish residents remaining in Budapest were required by law to wear a yellow star on their clothing. In Exhibit 18, a Jewish man stands with a yellow star in front of a message that equates Judaism with communism.

18. A Jewish man beside a propaganda placard where Jews are compared to communists, 1944

Yad Vashem

19. Arrow Cross Party poster, 1944

Fortepan / Lissák Tivadar

20. Execution of Jews on the bank of Danube, 1944

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

As the situation progressed, radical anti-semites became increasingly bold in their attacks on the Jewish community. Groups of men, often made up of Arrow Cross Party members, would frequently attack and murder members of the Jewish community. In exhibit 20, you can see one such occurrence where Arrow Cross men stand at the ready to execute Jews on the bank of the Danube. This violence would serve as a prelude to the coming to power of the Arrow Cross and its leader, Ferenc Szálasi. 

By October 1944, Horthy had secretly negotiated a surrender agreement with the USSR. On the 15th, he sent out a national radio broadcast declaring that Hungary had signed an armistice with the Soviet Union. In response, the Germans deposed Horthy and elevated Ferenc Szálasi to rule the country. In exhibit 17 you can see Szálasi, seated in the middle, surrounded by his cabinet, the so-called Government of National Unity. In exhibit 19, there is an Arrow Cross Party poster encouraging Hungarians to join their ranks.

22. Video testimonies of 2 women about the deportations.

Yad Vashem

21. Video of Hungarian Jews marched on the streets, 1944


Section 6: 1945

Near the end of December 1944, the Siege of Budapest began. The city, which had remained largely untouched through most of the war, quickly became a devastated war zone. Szálasi had fled the city on December 9th, before the Allied encirclement was complete. The siege lasted 50 days as Soviet and Romanian forces fought street by street to capture the city from the tens of thousands of remaining Hungarian Arrow Cross and German forces. In exhibit 24, you can see Hungarian forces fighting in the rubble of the city as the Soviet and Romanian armies close in.


23. Siege of Budapest, 1945 
Wikimedia Commons

24. Siege of Budapest, 1945


As the fighting progressed, Hungarians continued to perpetrate the Holocaust in their country. While the rail lines along which the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz had long since been severed by Allied troops, the Arrow Cross Party organized so-called death marches, to move Jews to Austrian labor/- and execution camps until the encirclement of the city was complete. During the siege, the Arrow Cross ramped up its policy of mass executions and attempted to use the remaining Jewish population of Budapest as human shields against allied attacks and hoped to use them as hostages for possible future negotiations with the Allied forces. In the course of the siege, more than 15,000 Jews were killed in the city of Budapest.

The last Axis troops in the city surrendered on 13 February 1945. In exhibit 23, you can see evidence of some of the devastation the war had caused. More than 80 percent of buildings in the city had been destroyed or damaged by the time the city fell and all seven of its bridges were left in ruins. In the immediate fallout, the Soviets transferred hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to the Soviet Union as war prisoners or laborers, especially targeting the country’s indigenous German population.  

25. Szálasi before the People's Court at the Music Academy, 1945


After the war, both Horthy and Szálasi would find themselves in the custody of the Allies; though both would meet very different fates. Horthy, on the pretext of having attempted to change sides and having been deposed by the Germans for it, did not face prosecution. Szálasi, on the other hand, was captured by American forces and returned to Hungary where he was tried by the People’s Tribunal. In exhibit 25, you can see him testify before the court. Finally, he was found guilty of war crimes and high treason. He was hanged on 12 March 1946.

Section 7: Today

Since its end, the memory of the Second World War has remained a battleground for different political agendas. The subsequent communist regime made little distinction between the reigns of Horthy and Szálasi; both were viewed as fascist enemies of the socialist political order. 

However, with the fall of Communism and the coming to power of Viktor Orbán, a new narrative emerged—that of double occupation. In this telling, the Szálasi regime and the communist era are equated to one another, both under foreign occupation and both being defined by rule through terror. Both fascists and communists are presented as agents of foreign rule, while decent, true-born Hungarians are presented as innocent victims of foreign forces and their allies. Meanwhile, the crimes of the Horthy government are ignored or even celebrated. Perhaps nowhere is this version of the past better articulated than in the House of Terror museum. In exhibits 26 and 27, you can see the House of Terror, first as the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party and then in its current form. 

26. House of Terror, 1944


In this museum, history gives way to spectacle. If you visit, you will find few texts; the viewer is instead treated to a chaotic and often jarring mix of audio-visual experiences. Replica and original artifacts are intermingled with the purely aesthetic to the point that what is history and what is entertainment become virtually indistinguishable. The result is a nationalist myth of victimhood portrayed as an “objective” history; one which equates the holocaust with communism and legitimizes the right-wing authoritarianism of the current political order. 

27. House of Terror today


Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered under both Horthy and Szálasi. These two governments and the communist regime that followed them all used terror and violence in their unique ways. All three periods had continuities and ruptures concerning what came before and after; they were neither the same nor entirely different from each other. As we contend with the past now, it is important that we not only look for these differences and similarities, but also consider what responsibilities we have as individuals today in the face of authoritarianism, how we contend with our complicity in the crimes of our states, and how can we acknowledge the past in ways which make such crimes less likely to take place?

Afterword: towards the critique of the House of Terror

When I first visited the House of Terror, I was struck by how it managed to be so sensorily overwhelming and devoid of context, yet still a rather popular destination. It seemed to rely more on evoking specific emotions in the viewer rather than educating them about the events of the past. For me, this piqued my interest because while I view the museum as an example of public history done poorly, its success in drawing visitors indicates that its narrative and approach are broadly accepted. This makes the House of Terror an especially dangerous institution in my estimation. Its inability to look critically at the past as well as its clear links to the ideology of the ruling Fidesz party make it a crucial instrument in the propagation of nationalist myth making at the heart of the current political regime. A better museum would focus more on relaying what happened in the past, rather than trying to make people feel a certain way about the past.

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House of Terror could be observed as a highly problematic museum or the “site of memory” that it tries to pretend to be. Created with the funds of the Viktor Orbán administration (right before the election campaign), this museum tends to serve specific political interests by capturing historical narratives about the 20th century for the sake of creating not only the specific worldview where Hungary is depicted as the ‘great’ and ‘glorious’ nation – the victim of historical injustice – but also to form a collective identity based on this mythologeme. As Roland Barthes mentions, “myth is a depoliticized speech,” which means that any narrative transmitted in the form of myth aims at naturalization and the self-evident perception of a strong ideological message. Mythology is a cover that tends to hide ideology. The narrative transmitted in the House of Terror is biased and one-sided in its portrayal of the Hungarian nation as a victim of external powers, depicting Hungarians, paradoxically enough, as both heroes and martyrs at the same time. The leitmotif of suffering and martyrdom threads throughout the museum exhibition. This opens all avenues to legitimize the possible pursuit of aggressive foreign and domestic policies based on the myths of exceptionalism and messianism.  


What struck me most was the lack of any contextualization of the museum pieces and the absence of an intelligible curatorial text. The aggressive use of audio and active appeal to sound demonstrate the selection of the most emotionally accessible medium to deliver certain top-down messages. The blind desire to make the museum interactive and the focus on form, in this case, emasculate the content. All in all, the museum approach is highly vertical and hierarchical; it strives to be immersive, but it does not offer true participatory and horizontal engagement because the audience is excluded and disconnected from the context. There is no opportunity for open and direct dialog or critical interaction with museum objects.

When I first visited the House of Terror, I was struck by its design: specifically, how intentionally ‘anti-learning’ it seemed. Not only is the constant sound - which I hesitate to call ‘music’ - incredibly overwhelming and overstimulating, and thus not at all conducive to spending extended periods of time in the first few rooms at risk of getting a headache, but there is almost no curatorial text. If the exhibitions had focused on photos, less curatorial text would not have been as startling - I myself have been to exhibitions which had opted to let the photographs ‘speak for themselves’. However, as the House of Terror seemed to struggle to decide whether it wanted to be a museum or an abstract art gallery, the lack of text was incredibly jarring, as it forced visitors who had opted against taking the audio-guide to take the exhibits at face-value, or, worse yet, try to give the ‘art’ in some of the rooms their own interpretation. It is not difficult to imagine why encouraging own interpretation - or blindly trusting what was being presented with only minimal guidelines offered in the form of a single paragraph, as was the case with some of the rooms - of a museum dedicated to some of the darkest periods of Hungarian history may be problematic. Not only does it discourage critical engagement with the past and the concepts of agency and accountability, but it also fails to offer even a modicum of ‘educational’ value. From solely my own experience, the ‘House of Terror’ could have very well been called the ‘House of Agitprop’ and its contents would not have had to change at all.

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The way House of Terror represents the history of dictatorships is authoritarian and has a certain political attitude.  When I first visited there, I wondered why there was so little text and so many promotional photos, videos, and artworks were placed there without any explanation.  Loud, strange music was constantly playing in most of the exhibition halls and seemed to take away any contemplation of history.  Additionally, taking photos and videos inside the museum was strictly prohibited.  The way House of Terror depicts the history of Arrow Cross and the communist regime in this way is extremely problematic.  This is because the exhibition does not include any criticism or interpretation of history, only propaganda and other problematic materials.  This way of representing history deprives visitors of critical thinking and discussion about history.  What I want to emphasize is that the House of Terror exhibit represents the very history of authoritarianism.  It erases multiple perspectives on history and uses populist methods to instill a particular historical narrative in people.  It was a good experience to look back at the House of Terror and think about what the appropriate way is to represent history in a museum.


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