Hungary offers a valued voice on terror of totalitarianism

Hungary offers a valued voice on terror of totalitarianism
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In this centennial year of the Bolshevik uprising in Russia, it is important to consider the role of totalitarianism — communism and fascism — as a leading driver of terror and human suffering in the modern world. As David Satter writes in the Wall Street Journal: “In countries where communism came to hold sway, it hollowed out society’s moral core, degrading the individual and turning him into a cog in the machinery of the state. Communists committed murder on such a scale (a death toll estimated to be approximately 100 million) as to all but eliminate the value of life and to destroy the individual conscience in survivors … while in the West, communism inverted society’s understanding of the source of its values, creating political confusion that persists to this day.”  

Having just returned from the Hungary at First ‘Site’ Conference in Budapest, designed to give international journalists a close-up view of the policies and motivations of Hungary’s government and people, these issues are fresh in my mind. The conference succeeded in its mission through meetings with government officials, academics and visits to significant Hungarian landmarks. Perhaps the most striking of these visits was to the House of Terror Museum on the final day of the program.


The museum highlights in the starkest terms the critical need to remember the lives ruined by totalitarianism and drives home the dangers of statism, fascism, communism and socialism to younger generations — which, alarmingly, seem drawn to some of these elements.

For those born before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it can be shocking to witness the embrace by younger generations of transformative socialist ideas. A possible antidote could exist in Hungary’s Museum of Terror, which brings to life events about which today’s young people may be unaware.

For a myriad of reasons, U.S. schools and universities are failing to supply the history, context and background of the rise of the most troubling and dehumanizing political systems of modern history. Indeed, a survey by the D.C.-based nonprofit, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, found that one in two U.S. millennials would prefer to live in a socialist or communist country, rather than a capitalist democracy. Twenty-two percent favorably view Karl Marx’s dictums, and 71 percent could not properly define communism.

While communist regimes continue to assault freedom in Cuba, China and elsewhere, there are no leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or Pope John Paul II to remind us that freedom is not free. Thankfully, that void is filled by monuments such as Hungary’s Museum of Terror. The museum’s director general, historian Maria Schmidt, expressed to us the horrors that her country endured, first under the Nazis and then under communist regimes.

Hungary should earn praise for taking on the critical responsibility of educating the world to the horrors of Nazi and communist totalitarianism. While some in Western Europe and the United States increasingly whitewash the past, and draw shocking moral equivalencies between democracies and less-free systems, Hungary and some of its regional neighbors have stepped up to bear witness to the ravages that totalitarian terror has inflicted. It is ironic that, while the West succumbs to pulling down past symbolic heroes, out of fear of offending objectors, Hungary and it neighbors are erecting statues of our protectors of freedom, such as Reagan, conspicuously beside their own heroes.

Efforts in the United States and throughout the West are less visible, though the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is a good start whose efforts should be supported. With the retirement this year of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a freedom-fighter who experienced the terrors of Cuban communism and devoted her 30-year career to broadcasting its human rights abuses to the world, we must cultivate new thought leaders on the topic.  

The philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We are seeing this in action as our U.S. education system fails to tell the story of the horrors of totalitarianism, resulting in ignorance among many younger Americans. Though President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump passes Pence a dangerous buck Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Trump nods at reputation as germaphobe during coronavirus briefing: 'I try to bail out as much as possible' after sneezes MORE’s expressed patriotism could be a positive antidote, Americans also need the proper background and perspective for future generations to understand not just that our nation is great, but what previous generations fought against to get here.

Lee Cohen is a senior fellow of the Danube Institute in Budapest and the London Center for Policy Research in New York. He has advised the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on European affairs, and was founding executive director of the House United Kingdom Caucus.