Across from a fountain, where naked children were dodging jets of water, is a deeply unpopular new memorial, erected by the government “to the victims of the German occupation.” Hungary is represented as the innocent Archangel Gabriel, preyed upon by a swooping German imperial eagle. Critics dismiss it as an attempt to whitewash the country’s complicity in the Holocaust. Opposite the statue, citizens have created a protest memorial, arranging evidence of Hungarian involvement: little shoes, strands of barbed wire, laminated photos and handwritten accounts of Jewish, Roma, or gay residents who were sent to Auschwitz or shot here on the banks of the Danube.
Even by European standards, past demons are especially present in Hungary. In the last parliamentary elections, more than 20 per cent of the vote went to the far-right, neofascist Jobbik party, whose members have said that Hungary’s Jews should be ‘tallied up’ because they pose ‘a threat to national security: The country’s premier, Viktor Orban, routinely condemns Jobbik, but his governing party, Fidesz, is hardly progressive. Last summer, Orban emerged as a minor villain in Europe’s refugee drama when he built a razor-wire fence along the Serbian border to stop the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, expressing a desire to ‘keep Europe Christian’. While Orban’s mix of populism and nativism has been a winner at the ballot box, it gives liberal-minded Budapesters indigestion. People I met seemed proud of their city, but pained about its politics and the attendant bad press. When I was in town, a crowd-funded billboard campaign told visitors, in English, “Sorry about our prime minister.”
Most European capitals developed over centuries, but almost all of Budapest’s iconic destinations — Parliament, St Stephen’s Basilica, the Opera House—were completed in a 30-year sprint beginning around 1875. This is why the city, even more than Vienna, gives off such a unified imperial vibe. “It really has the feeling of a city that was going to be the new twin capital of an empire,” Edwin Heathcote, the half-Hungarian architecture critic for the Financial Times, had told me. “But by the time it was finished, the empire had disappeared. There’s a slight sadness about it almost, that in a way it was a city of unrealized potential?’