“The House of Terror”: Large Group Psychology

December 17, 2019

A bright painting of two nearly identifical girls.
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I visited Budapest while studying abroad in Vienna and it brought home some ancestral recollections in my 5/8 Slavically Jewish memory. I came across a stylish neo-Renaissance house that was built on Andrassy Street, a picturesque boulevard not far from the Danube, in 1880. For decades the building served as a venue for pleasant social gatherings among the Hungarian aristocracy. A lot has happened since then; now, its only purpose is to memorialize what went down—its political and brutal functions between the 1930s and 1980s—which is why it’s now called Terror Háza (House of Terror).

From 1944 to 1945 its name was the House of Loyalty and served as headquarters to the Hungarian Arrowcross, a Nazi party. They used it as a prison and place of execution of Jews. It then became the House of Horrors when the Soviet Union “liberated” Hungary in World War II. Hungarian communist police, puppets to the Soviet Union’s State Security Department (AVO) and then the State Security Authority (AVH), occupied the house from 1945 to 1956, creating an underground labyrinth by connecting the cellars of the whole block throughout which they brutally interrogated captives.

The “house” now recalls these horrid political functions as a controversial symbol. It’s always physically stood in the center of Hungary’s capital; now, figuratively, it’s also the front-line of modern Hungary’s cultural battleground. It’s the place for remembering, the object of contentious debate, and the sub-textual outlet for post-traumatic coping and Hungarian identity reconstruction. It is therefore logical to invoke the large group psychology theories of my former mentor, Vamik Volkan, upon which the tree model for unofficial diplomacy is largely based, to interpret what’s at stake.

When venturing into Volkan’s theories, it is best to begin with something he calls the “tent metaphor” for large group identity. It is as if we each wear two garments. The undergarment is our personal identity and the outer is our tent that we share with the large group to which we belong. If all is well we do not notice our tent; it is in times of conflict that we become very aware of it, and are most likely to manipulate it.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that there are two kinds of nodal points in these tents: remembered collective experiences, positive and negative. Positive remembrance is not as frequent or effective in binding individuals together as negative remembrance. Perhaps that seems an ill-founded claim; when one supplements negative experience with trauma it becomes transparent that this science is closely tied to one hundred years of psychoanalytic development. According to most analysts trauma is divided into thoughtperception, or in this case, memory confabulationand affect. Instead of going into detail regarding the placement of these two parts within the conscious and unconscious, let us simply note that there is a disconnect between them.

Volkan calls major historical positive or negative experiences that bind individuals into large groups through remembrance, “chosen glory” and “chosen trauma.” The contingent part of their definition is that members of the group can be swayed via stimulation of these memories. I find this to be a dialectical or at least rhetorical mistake. It seems to me that as far as “chosen” implies action, it is essentially the stimulation of positive or negative memories that should fall under chosen glory and chosen trauma.

Prior to stimulation, we are in fact passive in relation to our memories: their emergence is not secondary because they come into existence in step with our large group identity; before we can act upon our tent it must first construct us. They should therefore be separated into “identity defining” and “chosen” glory and trauma in my opinion. It’s not so simple of course. It is not that our tent is constructed and that we are then forever we: united but separate from our tent. Our collective subjectivity is forever maintained by and concurrently maintaining our large-group identity/psychology and, to a degree, our individual subjectivity.

Moving along, now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with Volkan’s ideas a bit, which were undoubtedly influenced by Erik Erickson’s identity politics, I’ll now try to apply them to Budapest’s House of Terror, focusing on chosen trauma and the tent metaphor.

Manhandled by Nazis and socialists, Hungarians were no longer authentically covered by their tent, repressing a key aspect of their identity: their subjugation. Now, only thirty years free from political occupation, Hungarians cannot simply reemploy the tent as it stood before the 1940s. Perhaps they have tried and failed. It is when we look to the controversial reception of the House or Terror’s opening that we see the symptom of ego resistance and the anxiety caused when something repressed nearly succeeds in forcing itself into awareness.

The museum was largely funded by the former right-wing Hungarian government and its representative Viktor Orban. It almost exclusively portrays communist terror to the dismay of Hungarian Jews, which seems somewhat justified since more than a hundred times more of them were killed by the Nazis than gentile citizens executed by communists. This also pisses off left-wing (many formerly communist) Hungarians, though the two groups very much overlap.

A bright painting of two nearly identifical girls.

“2 of Me” by Karla Leopold

Two years after the museum opened the left took control of the government and threatened to cut its funding. Its director’s intention to suspend giant billboards of communist parents of current left-wing government representatives, in addition to the admission of one of their representatives that he served as an officer for the communist secret service, put an end to the ultimatum.

The museum’s stigmatization of communists doesn’t end there however; the final room of the museum features a massive collage of “victimizers,” Hungarians who supported the communists. Many of those portrayed are alive today and those alive but not currently portrayed can be registered by the average citizen on Terror Háza’s website.

Implied by this immature coping is Hungary’s regression, the immediate consequence of the traumas the museum represents, and it’s somewhat severe. Reconciliation would be ideal but the former enemy and victims are too alive and too nearby. Because of this the House of Terror doesn’t quite qualify as a chosen trauma by Volkan’s criteria:

“Representations of the calamity link together all the individuals in a large group. The next generation is given…tasks to carry out for their ancestors, such as completing the mourning process or reversing humiliation.” (The Tree Model)

Volkan’s preferred example of chosen trauma is Milosevic’s stimulation of the Serbian–note the national identification–memory of the battle of Kosovo 600 years ago.

The museum is then a struggle between many pairs of antagonisms. It is not purely any one thing. For instance, it is not merely a political ploy: “Even critics of the museum agree that the building is a symbol of both fascist and communist terror and that it warrants some sort of exhibition.” (Lucian Kim) The basic concept and motivation behind the museum is to cope, if not heal, but cultural remembrance often falls into the wrong hands given its ability to sway the masses.

“The end” of psychoanalytic treatment is sometimes considered the full transparency of unconscious forces, which are traced back from symptoms. This is a good way to consider the noble raison d’etre of the House of Terror: it serves as a symptom available to analysis and unconscious tracing, exactly because it is met with resistance, that which identifies repression.

The museum will probably become a cornerstone of Hungary’s large-group identify when it’s stripped of its political baggage over time, inherited along with the trauma it memorializes by future generations. For now, the post-traumatic stress is too acute. The emotions are too raw. However, in the sense that the symptom is the first step or the reason one generally enrolls in psychoanalysis, the House of Terror, for or in all its controversy, biased management and political appropriation, is rather impressive.

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