House of Terror

Stagenotes: Seder

The House of Terror Then & Now

By William Steinberger, Artistic Apprentice

The House of TerrorIn 2002, the House of Terror museum opened at 60 Andrássy Street in downtown Budapest. The building, a stately 19th Century villa, was home to the Nazi-affiliated Hungarian Arrow Cross Party during World War II and later to the AVO, the brutal secret police of the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP), which ruled Hungary for forty-five years after the war. Both regimes used the same equipment to torture and imprison political opponents in the building’s basement.

As Kati Marton writes in Enemies of the People, “The main instrument of Sovietization was the AVO, which reported directly to Stalin’s secret services. Everyone knew that the Red Army stood squarely behind the AVO, which was in effect a Soviet party within the Hungarian Communist Party.”


Rebels raise the Hungarian flag, with the coat of arms representing the Communist Party cut out, during the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. John Sadovy took these photos for Life magazine.
Rebels raise the Hungarian flag, with the coat of arms representing the Communist Party cut out, during the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. John Sadovy took these photos for Life magazine.

On October 23, 1956, a group made up primarily of students assembled in József Bem Square to protest Soviet occupation, one of several protests that day. The protesters, whose numbers swelled to 200,000, moved towards 60 Andrássy, demanding the reinstatement of popular former Prime Minister Irme Nagy.

Many AVO officers left 60 Andrássy to join the rebels. Those who remained were captured and paraded out, hands raised. Some were shot on Andrássy Street.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev initially believed that the protesters would disband if given limited concessions. He restored Mr. Nagy and withdrew Soviet troops to outside Hungary’s border. But on November 3, Mr. Khrushchev changed his mind, ordering his troops to re-enter Budapest and replace Mr. Nagy.

Mr. Nagy hastily appeared on Radio Budapest, declaring, “Today at daybreak Soviet forces started an attack against our capital, obviously with the intention to overthrow the legal Hungarian democratic government. I notify the people of our country and the entire world of this fact.” But no international aid arrived.

The Soviet Army overwhelmed the rebels, restoring the HCP and AVO to power. Two years later, Mr. Nagy was hanged in secret.


1989 was a year of change across Europe. In Hungary, a gradual shift towards democracy came from within HCP leadership. This was also a time when young Hungarian Jews began to discover their religious identity, which no longer conflicted with the HCP’s aim to create a Hungary devoid of separate ethnic and religious identities.

On June 16, 1989, Irme Nagy was re-buried as a hero. At the ceremony—on the thirty first anniversary of Mr. Nagy’s hanging—HCP officials were reprimanded by a young politician named Viktor Orbán, who told the crowd that “we cannot understand that those who were eager to slander the revolution and its Prime Minister have suddenly changed into great supporters and followers of Imre Nagy.

Mr. Orbán, who later came to lead the center-right Fidesz party, first became Prime Minister in 1998. In 2014, the party “won a two-thirds parliamentary majority with less than half the vote,” according to The Economist. Under Mr. Orbán’s leadership, Fidesz has repeatedly revised Hungary’s constitution, limiting free press, open elections and the freedom of assembly and drawing international condemnation.


1940: Hungary allies with Nazi Germany.

MARCH 1944: Germany invades Hungary; Jews are sent to concentration camps.

SEPTEMBER, 1944: Soviet Army enters Hungary.

APRIL 4, 1945: Soviet military operations in Hungary officially end; Hungarian communists, associated with Moscow, consolidate power.

OCTOBER 23, 1956: The Hungarian Revolution begins with student protests.

NOVEMBER 4, 1956: The Soviet Union crushes the Hungarian Revolution, killing thousands; the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) retains power.

MAY, 1988: Reform-minded members of the HCP gradually liberalize the country, peacefully transitioning Hungary to a multi-party democracy

NOVEMBER 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall falls.

1994: Former HCP officials form a governing coalition with liberals in the National Assembly.


Shortly after taking office in 1998, Mr. Orbán ordered the creation of the House of Terror. The museum describes itself as “a monument to the memory of those held captive, tortured and killed in this building. The Museum also intends to make people understand that the sacrifice for freedom was not in vain.”

Standing before the museum at a rally shortly after it opened, Mr. Orbán said “we have locked the two terrors in the same building, and they are good company for each other, as neither of them would have been able to survive long without the support of a foreign military force.”

Still, the House of Terror has many critics, who emphasize that the atrocities inside 60 Andrássy were committed by Hungarians, not foreign militaries. Jacob Mikanowski, writing in The Awl in 2012, criticized the museum for presenting “history as nightmare, something that isn’t a narrative at all but a string of ominous sensations. It promotes a vision of history in which Hungary is a perennial victim, and Fidesz its long-awaited savior.”

Mr. Mikanowski concludes that “what the House of Terror presents is a lie: a falsified narrative of Hungary’s history. It’s a spooky, exhilarating narrative, one in which visitors are stuffed in cattle cars, locked in interrogation cells and sent into torture holes. But below the surface, the museum communicates a hidden truth about the underside of Fidesz’s ideology of national renewal. The real appeal of the House of Terror is subliminal. It speaks a language of pleasure and fear. As an experience, it’s really not about Hungary at all, but about the perverse attraction of totalitarian power.”