Reiner Frigyes park.

Reiner Frigyes park.

Features Reiner Frigyes Park: A Reflection on current events in Hungary

Inaugurated in October 2012, the statue was one of the first publicly-funded right-wing monuments to adorn a public square in postwar Hungary, and only one example of the current Hungarian government’s determined campaign to reformulate public discourse and memory politics.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2018:4 Vol XI, pages 34-36
Published on on March 6, 2019

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Meandering eastwards from Budapest’s rapidly gentrifying and increasingly touristic fifth district towards the city’s Eastern railway station (Keleti pályaudvar) and a few hundred meters beyond that, one encounters Reiner Frigyes park. A small grassy area surrounded on three sides by heavily frequented streets, the park is located on the fringes of Budapest’s fourteenth district. Also known as the Zugló district, the neighborhood in many ways forms a testament to Hungary’s dashed hopes of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the country’s turn towards liberal democracy and the “West” attracted international investment, new forms of entrepreneurship, and the establishment of non-governmental and educational institutions dedicated to dialog, the promotion of human rights, and the free exchange of ideas. Today, Zugló’s urban quarters are in a state of dilapidation: shops and businesses, erected in part before 1989, but mostly thereafter, are deteriorating if not closed, their once gleaming façades harboring the pollution and decay of over a decade of economic decline and social crisis.

On approaching Reiner Frigyes park, one immediately notices an enormous statue. Standing over three meters tall, the statue consists of a massive stone base bearing a bronze map of “Greater Hungary.” Swooping over the map is a large bronze turul (a bird of prey central to Hungarian nationalist mythology) carrying a sword in its talons. Above the bird, in turn, is a burnished, copper-colored patriarchal cross, which stands nearly as tall as the rest of the statue combined. Inaugurated in October 2012, the statue was one of the first publicly-funded right-wing monuments to adorn a public square in postwar Hungary, and only one example of the current Hungarian government’s determined campaign to reformulate public discourse and memory politics.

Upon its election in 2010, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party immediately began implementing its absolute majority in parliament to fundamentally transform Hungary: in 2011, it introduced a new constitution, the Fundamental Law of Hungary, which solidified Fidesz’ powers while enshrining a vision of “Hungarianness” based on Christianity, loyalty towards the “fatherland,” and “traditional” family values.1 Citizenship laws were altered to allow hundreds of thousands of individuals with Hungarian ancestry — located primarily in pre-Trianon “Greater Hungary” — to apply for Hungarian citizenship.2 Private pensions were nationalized, the freedom of the press and judiciary curbed, and school curricula rewritten to disseminate a new national ideology.3 Anti-migration policies and the 2015 erection of Hungary’s border barrier caused international outrage, while propaganda campaigns against migrants, NGOs, and George Soros (founder of the Open Society Foundations) have flooded the Hungarian public sphere.4 More recently, Prime Minister Orbán’s government’s maneuvers towards transforming Hungary into an “illiberal democracy” have directly attacked academic freedom and international institutions of research, education, and learning. Since April 2017, for instance, Central European University in Budapest has faced legislation aimed at its closure, while in August 2018 the Hungarian government announced its intention to shut down the country’s Gender Studies programs.5

Hungary’s turn towards the right has been accompanied by cultural politics dedicated to promoting an exclusivist Hungarian nationalism. As early as 2011, the Fidesz government began renaming streets and squares in Budapest to symbolically “re-Hungarianize” the city: Moszkva tér became Széll Kálmán tér, Roosevelt tér became Széchenyi István tér, while streets, avenues, and even buildings across the city received new Hungarian monikers. Budapest’s flag was redesigned to reflect the Hungarian red-white-green tricolor and an imagined ancient heraldry. Statues and monuments, too, became crucial to the endeavor: particularly in Budapest’s government quarters, statues dedicated to left-wing and socialist figures have disappeared, while historically revisionist monuments have emerged instead. Most prominently, in the framework of the 2014 government commemoration activities of the 70th Anniversary Year of the Holocaust in Hungary, an enormous statue was erected on Budapest’s Szabadság tér (“Liberty Square”) commemorating Germany’s occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. Depicting the German “imperial eagle” attacking the Archangel Gabriel, who holds an orb representing Hungarian state power, the monument is dedicated to the “memory of the victims” of Germany’s occupation of Hungary. The statue’s message is clear: as a victim of German aggression (not a former Axis power), Hungary and the Hungarians held no responsibility for the deportation and murder of some 430,000 Jews from Hungary after March 1944. This falsification of the historic record has stirred considerable resistance. Even before it was unveiled on July 21, 2014, protesters began creating an alternative memorial, the “Living Memorial,” through which individuals are encouraged to leave their own memorabilia at the site and to engage in public discussions on the history of the Holocaust, the nature of commemoration, and current political issues in Hungary.6

It was in the framework of Fidesz’ seizure of power and the unfolding of its nationalist agenda that the monument in Reiner Frigyes park was unveiled on October 27, 2012. Quickly, the memorial became a site of congregation for Hungarian nationalists, particularly those associated with Hungary’s far right party, Jobbik.7 Online searches of Reiner Frigyes now yield numerous videos, images, and articles propagated by the right-wing scene; Reiner’s name, at least in the Internet stratosphere, has become synonymous with Hungarian nationalism, irredentism, and hatred.

This development is particularly disturbing when one considers who Reiner Frigyes was. Known internationally as Fritz Reiner, Reiner Frigyes was one of the most prominent conductors of the twentieth century. Born in 1888 to a secular Jewish family in Budapest, Reiner’s career began in Budapest and Dresden before he moved to the United States in 1922. Over the course of his life, he conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, collaborated with some of the greatest composers of his day, and made a range of ground-breaking recordings. Among his teachers was Béla Bartók; among his students, Leonard Bernstein.8

Fritz Reiner was my great-grandfather. It was thus with great dismay that I learned of the monument, which was erected in the park that bears his name, in October 2012. During the preceding two years, fate had already granted me a front-row seat to Hungary’s transformation, as I studied history at Central European University. Shortly after my departure from Hungary, the monument was unveiled amid great nationalist fanfare, so far removed from the principles espoused by my family and me. Unwilling to simply submit to this newest demonstration of governmental power, we wrote a letter of protest — written in English and translated into Hungarian — to Zugló’s mayor at the time, Papcsák Ferenc. In the letter, we expressed our consternation about the statue, and asked that either the statue or the name be removed from the park to prevent any association between Reiner Frigyes and the current government’s political program. The letter was never answered. As of September 2018, the statue still stands in the park, with a large plaque nearby designating the area as “Reiner Frigyes park.”

Over the past years, I have seen friends, colleagues, and former professors face intimidation and threats to their livelihood.9 Attacks against institutions like Central European University persist despite international outcries and expressions of solidarity. The reformulation of politics and society in Hungary has now reached well beyond the symbolic sphere to include the very freedom of expression and intellectual pursuits. It seems highly unlikely that the government will remove the statue from Reiner Frigyes park in the near future. However, if the monument does fall one day, we can only hope that it will do so in a global context once again dedicated to the values of an open society, freedom of expression, and democracy and human rights for all. ≈



1 Consider, for instance: Dagmar Breitenbach and David Levitz, “Hungary’s parliament passes controversial new constitution,” Deutsche Welle, April, 18, 2011, accessed September 9, 2018,

2 Laurence Peter, “New Hungary citizenship law fuels passport demand,” BBC News, January 4, 2011, accessed September 9, 2018,

3 Thomas Escritt, “‘Nightmare’ in Hungary as government nationalises pension funds,” IPE, November 26, 2010, accessed September 9, 2018,; Thomson Reuters, “Hungary press freedom takes another hit as newspaper to close,” CBC, April 10, 2018, accessed September 9, 2018,; Daniel Nolan, “New state-backed textbook casts Hungary’s Orban in flattering light,” Deutsche Welle, November 7, 2016, accessed September 9, 2018,

4 Lily Bayer, “Hungary steps up anti-Soros crackdown ahead of election,” Politico, January 17, 2018, accessed September 9, 2018,; Palko Karasz, “Hungary’s Soros-Backed University Is Reaccredited,” The New York Times, February 28, 2018, accessed September 9, 2018,

5 “#IstandwithCEU,” Central European University, accessed September 9, 2018,; Andrea Pető, “‘Resistance Alone Is Not Enough’ — Women’s Rights and Illiberal Democracies,” Social Europe, September 15, 2017, accessed September 9, 2018,; Balázs Trencsényi, Alfred J. Rieber, Constantin Iordachi, and Adela Hîncu, “Academic Freedom in Danger. Fact Files on the ‘CEU Affair’,” Südosteuropa, vol. 65, no. 2 (2017): 412—436.

6 Consider: Andrea Pető, “Hungary 70: Non-Remembering the Holocaust in Hungary,” Culture & History Digital Journal, vol. 3, no. 2

(December 2014), e016; “Controversial Monument Divides Hungarians, Angers Jewish Community,” EURACTIV, accessed September 9, 2018,

7 Consider, for instance, official footage by the Zugló municipal authorities of the statue’s inauguration, filmed October 27, 2012, accessed September 13, 2018:

8 See: Philip Hart, Fritz Reiner: A Biography (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1994); Kenneth Morgan, Fritz Reiner: Maestro & Martinet (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005).

9 For a particularly well-known example of such tactics, consider: Keno Verseck, “Die ‘Soros-Söldner’-Liste: Orbans Rachefeldzug beginnt,” Deutsche Welle, April 13, 2018, accessed September 13, 2018,; Colleen Sharkey, “CEU Condemns Attempt to Intimidate Academics, Journalists, NGOs in Figyelo”, Central European University, April 12, 2018, accessed September 13, 2018,

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