Here a müemlek, there a müemlek, everywhere a müemlek: Public history in Hungary

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I am a historian from Wisconsin, spending a semester teaching in Pécs (pronounced paych), Hungary as part of the Fulbright program.  Hungarians publicly remember the past in so many places and in so many different ways that I frequently feel a kind of happy, historical sensory overload.  Chiseled into plaques and attached to walls all over my neighborhood in Pécs is the word “Müemlek.”  In my Hungarian-English dictionary, müemlek is defined as “monument,” but judging from the contexts in which I see this word, perhaps “thing of historical significance” would be a better translation.  These müemlek plaques are more common in touristy areas, but everywhere, it seems, is the impulse behind these plaques: Hungarians remember the past everywhere, from street signs to consumer products, from city centers to the roads into small towns, and even from facial hair choices to their baby’s names.  In Hungary, here a müemlek, there a müemlek, everywhere a müemlek.

Muemlek plaque (photo courtesy of Gabriel Loiacono)

Muemlek plaque (photo courtesy of Gabriel Loiacono)

In Pécs, this is particularly noticeable.  Here are just a couple examples.  Buildings of historical significance seem to be everywhere in this town, indeed in this country, and plaques seem to be affixed to every second building, telling passersby which accomplished poet sat at this café table in 1848, and which beloved teacher strode out of this apartment building each day for six decades around the turn of the twentieth century.  Or they simply explain which historic style of architecture this building represents.  This is true not only in my neighborhood, a tourist attraction, but also in far-flung quiet, residential neighborhoods.  One of these photos shows a Pécs residential street sign, for example, complete with an explanation of who, exactly, the street is named after.

Street sign muemlek (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Loiacono)

Street sign muemlek (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Loiacono)

Another sign at the entrance to a Budapest bookstore, lists artists who frequented a café on this site 100 years ago. In some places in Pécs, preservationists had so many things to say that the plaques are lumped together in threes and fours.

A group of four muemleks (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Loiacono)

A group of four muemleks (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Loiacono)

Small towns erect welcome signs in several languages, one of which is often the ancient alphabet of the Hungarian language, officially displaced by the Latin alphabet around the year 1000.  Although it is difficult to know much about the migration of Magyars to this land in the 9th century, many Hungarians seem to cherish every connection to this ancient history that they can.  One connection is this alphabet.  How many people can actually read it?  Very few, as I understand it, but that’s not the point.  (This sign says Kislőd.)  The point is to say that “we Hungarians, as a people, have a past together that stretches beyond even our Christianization and attachment to Europe.  So let’s remember that.”  Another cherished connection to this very distant past are the names that have passed down from that ancient period to this one.

Sign in ancient Hungarian alphabet (Photo courtesy of Gabriel Loiacono)

Sign in ancient Hungarian alphabet (Photo courtesy of Rovás Alapítvány / Rovas Foundation)

A growing trend here is to name one’s child after one of the ancient Magyars who swept into this region in the ninth century.  Thus, one can meet increasing numbers of cute little babies named Botond (which assures me means “mace-wielding warrior”) or Boglarka (buttercup?).  Some of these names are ancient and obscure enough that there is little consensus on the original meaning of the name.  To help, there are websites in Hungarian and even in English devoted to listing, defining, and tracking the popularity of these ancient Hungarian names.  (See, for example,, a website in both Hungarian and English).  Even baby’s names here are small exercises in public history.  There was a time in American history when Americans named their children George Washington This or Benjamin Franklin That, after the founders of the United States.  Hungarians today are increasingly choosing names associated with the ancient founders of the Hungarian presence in central Europe.

It is not clear what these ancient founders of Hungary looked like.  The sources are scarce.  Nevertheless, the ancient founders are often depicted in artwork, and the men are usually shown wearing interesting, exotic warlike equipage, and sporting a long, distinctive mustache.  Most Hungarian men today go clean-shaven.  Those who do wear moustaches, though, wear rather distinctive ones, which droop or curve around the mouth, reminiscent of depictions of the ancient Magyars.  Almost always, these moustaches are on men over the age of forty.  I submit that these moustaches are also a minor exercise in public history.

One often hears history referenced in casual conversations.  I could not possibly count the number of times Hungarians have described the 1920 Treaty of Trianon to me.  This post-World War I treaty, a sibling treaty to that of Versailles, reduced Hungary’s territory and population by 2/3.  Almost 100 years later, it clearly remains a sore spot, and one that Hungarians talk about and occasionally memorialize.  It also remains a political issue.  Most of that 2/3 of territory and population is now in Slovakia, Romania, or Serbia.  The question of how the state of Hungary is related to ethnic Hungarians in those countries is, then, a historical question, a political question, and a contentious one, not only within Hungary, but especially in recent years between the governments of Hungary and Slovakia.

That is just one example of how intertwined politics and history are here.  Another example, which pertains more directly to public history, is a recent argument over what the name of a busy square in Budapest should be.  Széll Kálmán Square, an important commuter hub on the Buda side of the city, was originally given that name after a turn-of-the-century prime minister of Hungary.  It was renamed Moszkva (or Moscow) Square in the early 1950s, by the Soviet-allied Communist government in Hungary.  When, in 2011, the Budapest city government planned to switch the name back to Széll Kálmán Square, an outcry ensued.  Defenders of the old name argued that Moszkva Square no longer implied subordination to Moscow.  Moreover, they said that over the course of sixty years, the name Moszkva Square had acquired its own cultural meanings, and had become an important element of the cultural history of Budapest in its own right.  There was even a 2001 film named after the square.  The city changed the name anyhow, but this is an interesting example of the kinds of public history arguments that Hungary has seen recently.

As an American traveling abroad I am sensitive to examples of public history and its politics in everyday settings.  No doubt at home, there are some examples of public history in my everyday life that I barely notice because of how accustomed to them I am.  Nevertheless, it seems quite clear to me that efforts to remember the past saturate this country.  Here, everywhere is a müemlek.

~ Gabriel Loiacono, Assistant Professor of History at University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

Disclaimer: The above views reflect the views of the author, and not those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. State Department.

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