The city was always good for drama -- for intrigues about life and death, for eternal love and murderous betrayal, for torture, political heroism and sexual escapades. Founded by the Romans, destroyed by the Mongols and oppressed by the Ottoman Turks, Budapest has reinvented itself time and again, flexible in the flux of time. It has also served as a laboratory of sorts for varying political ideologies, from National Socialism to fascism to communism.
The United Nations has named four spots in the city UNESCO world heritage sites: the panorama on the Danube River embankment, the Buda castle district, the Millennium underground railway and Andrássy Avenue. The Hungarians wanted to use the magnificent boulevard, which was designed and built as part of preparations for the nation's mythical millennium celebration in 1896, to demonstrate that they had assumed their rightful place in the center of the continent. The country fell to the Nazis 40 years later. The Arrow Cross Party, a Hungarian national socialist party briefly in power from October 1944 to March 1945, was still driving Jews into extermination camps after Adolf Eichmann, the "architect of the Holocaust," had already fled.
The Real Budapest
The New York Times recently dubbed Budapest "Hollywood on the Danube." More international films are produced there than in any other European city, partly because Budapest has state-of-the-art production studios and receives generous tax breaks from the government. Most of all, however, it's because of the city itself. Budapest is Europe in a nutshell, the perfect double for Rome, Paris, Madrid or Munich and the ideal setting for all kinds of movies. Anthony Hopkins is currently filming a thriller there, while Nicole Kidman appears in a comedy being produced in Budapest. Earlier this year, Robert Pattinson, the star of the "Twilight" films, shot scenes on Budapest's landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge for the upcoming film "Bel Ami."
But there is also news from the real Budapest, and the real Hungary of recent months.
Neo-fascist thugs attacked Roma families, killing six people in a series of murders. The right-wing populists of the Fidesz Party won a two-thirds majority in the parliament, while the anti-Semitic Jobbik party captured 16.7 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in Hungary, next to the Socialists. Unknown vandals defiled the Holocaust Memorial with bloody pigs' feet. A new law granted the government direct or indirect control over about 80 percent of the media. The television channel Echo TV showed an image of Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Imre Kertész together with a voiceover about rats. Civil servants can now be fired without cause. Krisztina Morvai, a member of the European Parliament for Jobbik, suggested that "liberal-Bolshevik Zionists" should start thinking about "where to flee and where to hide."
On May 14, 2010, Gábor Vona, the chairman of Jobbik, was about to make an appearance at the Hungarian parliament, whose seat is probably the world's most beautiful parliament building, a domed, neo-Gothic structure protected by bronze lions. Everyone was concerned that Vona would appear dressed in a fascist uniform from the past. As it happened, he showed up in a black suit, to the relief of many in the audience. But shortly before the swearing-in ceremony, the radical right-wing politician threw off his jacket to reveal a vest reminiscent of the uniforms of the Arrow Cross Party. Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described it as "sort of a Nazi outfit."
All of this is happening in a country that belongs to the European Union and NATO, a country normally associated more with the famous romantic relationship between Elisabeth of Bavaria, the former Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, and Count Andrássy, or the landscapes of the Puszta, or Hungarian steppes. Hungary is a country that was dubbed "the happiest barrack of the Eastern bloc" during the Cold War, where respectable citizens cut the hole into the border fences that put an end to the Iron Curtain more than 20 years ago. Now, in the wake of the Fidesz victory in communal elections on Oct. 3, the capital is getting a right-wing mayor for the first time, the 62-year engineer István Tarlós.
What's going on in Budapest?
'I Survived Two Dictatorships'
György Konrád, 77, loves Budapest. The renowned Hungarian author and recipient of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade owes his life to this city, even though the city led to the downfall of so many Jews. He could never have imagined ever turning his back on Budapest. He isn't someone who runs away from things. "But now I no longer think it's impossible that I could feel compelled to leave Hungary for good," says Konrád, leaning on his silver-tipped cane. "I survived two dictatorships. It's possible that the third one is now on its way."
Of course, nowadays Konrád doesn't have to fear a knock on his door that might end in his being taken away. Nevertheless, he cringed when he heard the sound of riding boots and heels clicking together in the courtyard of a house adjacent to his summerhouse above Lake Balaton. "The paramilitary organization of the neo-fascists was conducting exercises there -- on the property of my neighbor, who was imprisoned under the communists, was my friend for a long time and has now apparently defected to the far right," says Konrád.
The incident reawakened painful, repressed memories of the village of his childhood, Berettyóújfalu, 225 kilometers (140 miles) from the capital. It was a place where storks built nests above the synagogue, where the air smelled of lavender and oak wood, where children lived for the taste of cheesecake and hot cocoa, and where the clatter of hoofs could be heard outside the family's hardware store.
"Ever since I was five, I knew that they would kill me if Hitler won," Konrád recalls. He was 11 when they began picking up other Jewish pupils from his school. Soon his father and mother were also taken away. In June 1944, as the new head of the family, he forced his sister to pack her things and, using the money in his parents' hidden safe, bought train tickets to Budapest. He never saw any of his classmates again. They had all been sent to the gas chambers.