Is Hungarian national heritage doomed?

Amid nationalist resurgence and severe recession in Hungary, many observers fear that the reforms undertaken by Viktor Orban's government in the cultural sector will severely jeopardize the country's heritage.

Thalia Bayle
21 December 2012
A statue in Budapest, Hungary. Shutterstock/CoolR. All rights reserved.

A statue in Budapest, Hungary. Shutterstock/CoolR. All rights reserved.

Last September's decision to do away with the National Office of Cultural Heritage (KÖH), a governmental institution that has long been a watchdog for Hungary’s historical treasures, has marked a further step in opening the country’s real estate market to private investors. This measure, which is expected to generate new savings, now comes under criticism from the Hungarian people who fear it will pose new threats to the conservation of significant historical monuments and sites.

In the past decade, whistleblowers have frequently denounced Hungary’s weak legislation on heritage conservation, claiming that corruption and policies guided by real estate profit have led to the destruction of important buildings.

For many years, the KÖH has played a key role in heritage conservation, developing rehabilitation projects and moderating the intensive building policy led by authorities since the 1990s. Although it has often been criticised for being too complicit with profit-hungry local politicians, analysts worry its elimination will deprive cultural heritage from another safeguard against potential abuse of power in the field of culture.

“There is a high risk that the structure replacing the KÖH will lack autonomy since it is set to be placed under the authority of the Ministry of Interior," said Anna Perczel, a Hungarian architect and the President of ÓVÁS! (page in Hungarian), an association dedicated to the conservation of the heritage of Budapest’s Jewish quarter, Erzsébetvaros. She shares a view with several other civil society groups that the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has decided to cancel the KÖH’s activities because it deemed it a waste of money and a hindrance to investments by developers. “Even for protected sites, the government has repeatedly criticised protection standards and archaeological excavations for slowing down building projects. With the country mired in debt, the culture budget has been the first to be cut, undermining conservation measures even more she said.

This trend is far from new. Destructions and uncontrolled allocations of building permits have multiplied in the post-Soviet era. When the City of Budapest was decentralised after the collapse of communism, the 23 districts of the capital were offered the right to stipulate their building code and to allocate building permits. After the political transition, housing and real estate markets were opened to foreign investments and privatisations. High-rise offices and towers have thrived in Budapest, boosted by the intense competition that emerged between the districts to attract private developers.

“In the end, overlapping jurisdictions and long-standing rivalries between local authorities have hindered cooperative planning for heritage rehabilitation in the capital. Today, there is still no coherent urban development or regulation in the country,” said Jean-Pierre Frommer, the president of a French association which promotes Budapest’s heritage, Les mardis Hongrois de Paris (page in French).

In areas like Erzsébetvaros, with a rich stock of Art Nouveau architecture and remnants of the ghetto walls, the debate over Hungary’s urban policy has even taken international dimensions. In 2004, associations for the protection of cultural heritage such as ÓVÁS! shed light on the alarming state of districts 6 and 7, which encompass much of this historical area. Many monuments and street sections have been replaced by offices and apartment blocks which are often left uninhabited. Anna Perczel said 40 percent of the quarter’s neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings had been destroyed. In response to national claims, institutions such as UNESCO and ICOMOS, a non-governmental international organisation dedicated to the conservation of monuments and sites, sent a mission to Budapest to investigate on urban policy in 2007.

At that time, the head of the mission, Michel Polge, a French architect, had urged Hungarian authorities to strengthen heritage rehabilitation measures emphasizing the need to introduce tax incentives and grants to draw investors’ interest on conservation.

"One of the main goals was to implement a legislation similar to the [French] André Malraux law which accelerated the rehabilitation of the Marais quarter in Paris by removing taxes on rehabilitation and conservation projects" said Jean-Pierre Frommer. Most recommendations were left unimplemented and supervision structures such as the KÖH were given too little leverage to efficiently ensure heritage conservation.

Corruption has also been a major obstacle to the conservation of Budapest’s cultural heritage. Last February, Gyorgy Hunvald, the mayor of district 7 and a member of the socialist party MSZP, was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for selling properties in the Jewish quarter for less than their value. “In the cultural sector, there are dozens of similar cases every year in Hungary,” Jean-Pierre Frommer said.

For many Hungarians, today’s debates on national cultural heritage also mirror the rise of nationalism. Last June, the erection of a statute of Hungary’s wartime leader, Miklos Horty, has exacerbated feelings that minority rights are under growing threat in the country. The government’s efforts to cover up every remaining detail echoing Hungary’s communist past has led local authorities to rename streets and squares after leading historical figures from the Kingdom of Hungary's illustrious past.

Leading Hungarian intellectuals have also expressed their disgust towards Orban’s government. Last summer, Jewish-American author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel declined Hungary's highest state honour in protest at Orban’s "whitewashing" of the country's dark past. In March, Akos Kertesz, an 80-year-old prize-winning Jewish Hungarian writer, expressed his anger by applying for political asylum in Canada.

However, the economic crisis has recently proven to be paradoxically beneficial to the preservation of the country's heritage. Foreign buyers are more reluctant to invest in property and construction projects have been slowed. Many buildings are now left unfinished and will remain unoccupied for months."But as soon as the economic situation gets better, permits that are still pending will be re-examined and destructions will start again" said Anna Perczel.

Campaigners now hope that UNESCO and ICOMOS will send a new monitoring mission to Budapest in early 2013. 

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