July 1, 2009 / 4:17 PM / in 8 years

Hungary museum seeks to restore Cold War "Maginot"

BUDAPEST (Reuters Life!) - Krisztina Horvath cannot help but envy those in the West whose biggest headache during the Cold War was the abstract threat of a nuclear apocalypse. For Horvath, 64, the decades-long paranoia festering global politics after World War Two took a much more tangible form and literally broke through the door of her parents’ house in Paka, a tranquil village in southeast Hungary in 1951.

Fearing an attack through Yugoslavia, a Socialist state outside Moscow’s sphere of influence, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin devised the construction of a vast defense network along the southern border of neighboring Hungary, which was then a communist satellite.

The final structure, built by 1955, consisted of hundreds of bunkers, machine-gun nests, concrete bastions and various natural obstacles. Unfortunately for Horvath and her family, the front line ran right across their porch.

Today, almost two decades after the collapse of what U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously dubbed the “evil empire,” the fears of the departed are just a fading memory but the remnants of this vast defense network still scar the landscape.

The Hungarian War History Museum now wants to map out and restore parts of the structure to turn it into a tourist spot.

“This gigantic network bears witness to a bygone and a bit shameful era, and I think neither historians nor ordinary citizens can let this fall into oblivion,” said Lieutenant General Jozsef Hollo, Director of the Hungarian War History Museum.

“It was not meant to defend Hungary but to insulate the Soviets,” said Hollo, who took part in unearthing sections of the defense network himself.

The “Hungarian Maginot,” named after the line of defenses which German forces bypassed to invade France in World War Two, stretched 630 km (391 miles) and forced the relocation of thousands of people living in its path.

PACK UP AND LEAVE

Over half a century later, those memories are all too vivid for some.

On the morning of December 6, 1951, the day Hungarian children normally greet the arrival of Santa Claus, six men from state security came blasting through the door, touting bayonets and slamming Horvath’s father against the wall.

“We were told to pack whatever we can in two bed sheets, then they loaded us on a truck and we were off to the train station,” said Horvath, 7 years old at the time, her voice still emotional when recounting the ordeal.

“Then we were wagoned off, traveling for one or two days on end, I can’t even recall how long.”

Her sister, grandmother and parents, along with thousands of others in the early 1950s, were deported into labor camps or state farms in the east in a purge of “unreliable” citizens from strategic locations across Hungary, such as the Yugoslav border.

“There was no reason. That is just how the system worked,” Horvath said.

The war line was built by construction battalions of the Hungarian Army but eventually other divisions were also enlisted for the behemoth project, which took over 10,000 people and a staggering 7.5 billion forints ($38 million) to complete.

Quite a price tag, considering the network was never used.

“This counts as a horrendous, mind-blowing amount even by today’s standards,” Hollo said. “Even through a soldier’s eyes this is a total waste of money, which I think is a great testament to the conditions of that period.”

Plans to add two more tiers to the defense line were dropped in a political detente after Stalin’s death in 1953. But the buffer zone along the border remained, and the evicted could return only years later, like the Horvath family in 1957.

Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, editing by Paul Casciato

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