For months now the fate of the turul statue erected in Buda about three years ago has been in limbo. The turul is a mythical bird resembling an eagle or a falcon. According to legend there was a woman named Emese who was visited by an eagle/falcon in her dream. She became pregnant and gave birth to Álmos (in Hungarian dream is “álom”), the man who eventually led the seven Hungarian tribes to their new homeland in the Carpathian basin. The legend was most likely born when the Hungarians lived side by side with Turkic tribes because the word “turul” is of Turkic origin. As time went by the turul wasn’t so much the symbol of the Hungarian royal house as of power, war, and nobility in general. Such totem animals are well known the world over as parts of coats of arms; one can even find an eagle in the Great Seal of the United States. To this day the turul appears in the coat of arms of the Hungarian Army and the Office of National Security. So far, so good. So what’s wrong with that statue of the turul in District XII?
First of all, this particular statue was erected without a permit. The erection of a statue on public property must have the permission of a board whose members can decide about the artistic merit and the appropriateness of a particular work of art. The board wasn’t too taken with either the artistic merit or the appropriateness of this statue. One can certainly argue about the artistic value of this or that work of art, but when it came to the appropriateness of the statue there were grave doubts. The statue was supposed to commemorate the civilian victims of the district during the bombing and the subsequent siege of Budapest in World War II. But why use the symbol of the army as a memorial to civilian victims?
Then there was the problem that the turul had been used as a symbol of radical right-wing student organizations between the two world wars. In 1920 the right radical students of Budapest established the Turul Bajtársi Szövetség (Brotherhood Association of Turul) whose favorite pastime was beating up their fellow students of Jewish origin. The Turul Association had a very important part to play in the enactment of the law discriminating against Jews in admission to institutes of higher education (numerus clausus). A vivid description of the not infrequent “celebrations” of students of the Turul Association can be found in András Nyerges’s masterful account in “Március, kardlap, gumibot” (March, sword, night-stick) in the March 16, 2007 issue of Élet és Irodalom. The events described by Nyerges bear an uncanny resemblance to what has been going on in Budapest in the last couple of years. Rather frightening. In any case, the modern history of the turul was not something that was deemed appropriate as a memorial to the victims of 1944-45. In addition, early in the history of the Arrow Cross Party the turul was featured in the party’s emblem.
Permission or no permission the Fidesz mayor of District XII went ahead and came up with a masterful plan. Not far from the turul statue the local government began building another edifice on which were carved the names of non-Jews who allegedly helped the district’s Jews in 1944-45. This was also erected without a permit. Upon completion, the chief rabbi and the Israeli ambassador were invited to unveil the wall on which the names appeared. That was a clever move. If the turul must be removed because of a lack of permit then surely the wall commemorating those brave non-Jews must also be removed. And who will do that? Who can do that? Of course, the whole thing could have been solved at the beginning: get the police out and prevent the erection of the turul and that’s that. But no, the huge statue remains, overwhelming the square. Occasionally groups keep watch to make sure that no one tries to remove it in the dead of night. Or sometimes those who oppose it give speeches about the necessity of removing it. This has been going on while the case has been dragged through the court system. The new mayor (also Fidesz) offered compromise solutions that were not accepted by the city. And finally, when it looked as if the court had finally put an end to the appeal process, two thousand people gathered to demonstrate against the turul’s removal. All in all, it is a real circus. One has the sneaking suspicion that the illegal statue will stay. By now nobody dares to remove it. Its removal, in the eyes of the right, would be the victory of a small minority (I guess that means the Jews) against the overwhelming majority of good Hungarians who are fighting for their national symbol. The whole thing, as usual, is a complete fiasco.